Chapter Three

Chapter Three


For the first week or so on the Diamelen’s journey, Mary had barely managed to get any sleep. Adapting to life in microgravity never got any easier, whether it be eating lunch, taking a shower, or simply moving from one place to another. Sleeping was no different. Being strapped to a cot like Frankenstein’s monster on the operating table took quite a bit of getting used to, as did the night terrors that came from your body constantly believing itself to be falling. Mary had been a spacecraft pilot for a while, so she acclimated to these things quickly. Rook’s habit of listening to loud music on his headphones at night and Yancy’s warthog-like snoring, on the other hand, were much harder adjustments. But now, here in her own quiet room in a soft, strapless bed, Mary couldn’t sleep.

There were likely other members of the crew who couldn’t sleep, what with all the exciting revelations the day had brought them. Discovering that your computerized maître d’ had built you a luxury hotel out of pure ostentation mined from a platinum deposit the size of a soccer field was enough to get anyone excited. Mary would only be deceiving herself if she said she wasn’t pleased with the possible pay upgrade they’d be looking at, but she had much more than that on her mind.

There was SCARAB’s odd behavior, for one. Unless this model was some kind of advanced prototype, its processing and problem-solving capabilities were well beyond what she’d read about. She knew SCARABs were equipped with some cultural information, but she’d always figured that was simply there in case the human operator asked the SCARAB to build a sculpture, or replicate a painting. She’d never heard of a SCARAB actually integrating artwork into its own construction without a prompt. Though she’d never worked with one directly, she had been inside SCARAB self-built mining structures before. They were unfailingly practical, geometrically logical, and ugly. She wasn’t necessarily concerned with the fact that SCARAB had decorated itself so much as the fact that it had decorated itself well. Her room was really, really nice; nicer than she probably could have made it herself.

Though SCARAB’s inexplicably high level of intelligence and ingenuity was puzzling and vaguely unnerving, it wasn’t exactly disturbing. In fact, it wasn’t really the main thing on her mind. That would be, as it had been on hundreds of other sleepless nights in space and on Earth, her distant husband John, and their never-present daughter, Emily.

She knew not to wallow in the past, knew that she needed to let go and move on. She knew these things quite well, and she very nearly accepted them. She knew on a cognitive level that her priority for the present and the future should be salvaging her marriage to that big, handsome, adorable, horrible, wonderful, stupid man she loved too much to look at right now. She knew she was making a bad situation worse by avoiding him, knew that abandoning him for a year would make it even harder for him to heal than it already was. Sometimes she hated doing that to him, hated herself for being weak enough to do it. Sometimes she didn’t care. There were no words to describe the way she felt about everything now. She knew it didn’t make any sense to do what she did. She knew that leaving Earth, John, and her problems behind for a year wouldn’t make any of them go away, and she’d have to face them all again when she got back. Eventually she would have to face these demons and become a real human being again, with a real life.

Eventually.

After shifting position roughly twenty times and waiting calmly with her eyes closed for nearly an hour without feeling even the slightest bit inclined to delve into unconsciousness, Mary decided it was a futile effort, and she might as well find something productive to do. She flipped on the table lamp, clenching her eyes shut so the fluorescent bulb wouldn’t blind her dilated pupils, and slid out of bed. She went to her bag, which she still hadn’t really unpacked, and dug out a pair of thermal pants and put them on. She slipped her flight jacket on over her tank top, not bothering to button it, and walked to the door.

“Is there something I can do for you, Mrs. Ketch?”

Mary nearly jumped right back out of those thermal pants at the unexpected presence of SCARAB’s voice. “SCARAB…no. I’m fine. I am absolutely fine.”

“I apologize if I startled you. I merely perceived that you might possibly have a need of some kind.”

Mary shook her head and grinned with tight lips. “No, thank you, SCARAB. Remember that thing about discretion, though? Do you think we could establish a house rule that you don’t speak to me in my room unless I ask you for something? From this point on?”

“Certainly, Mrs. Ketch. It is my pleasure to leave you at peace in your designated room. If there is any other service I can provide, please do not hesitate to ask.”

“Yeah. Sure. Goodnight, SCARAB.” SCARAB probably said “Goodnight, Mrs. Ketch,” in response, but Mary tuned it out if it did. She opened the door and stepped into the hallway, heading back toward the common area. As she passed the open door to Rook’s room, she saw him playing what looked like euchre with Yancy. She walked right on by; she’d never been able to figure out euchre, and figured Rook probably cheated at it anyway.

She entered the common room, a large, circular area adorned with crescent-shaped couches made of the same foam material as her bed and organized around another fountain similar to the one in her room. She found the computer pad she had left on one of the end tables after dinner and sat down to begin looking over some of the new data SCARAB had given them about Tantalus 13. It wasn’t until she was seated that she noticed Becky sitting at the other end of the couch, also inspecting a computer pad.

She lifted her glance briefly and smiled at Mary. “Hey, Mary.”

Mary nodded. “Becky. Can’t sleep either?”

Becky sighed and leaned back into the soft couch. “Nope. What a crazy day…”

“Rook and Yancy are up too,” Mary noted. “Seems like the excitement’s getting to all of us.”

“Yeah, I saw them. For me, though, it’s not just excitement. Something’s been nagging at me for the past couple of hours.”

Mary raised an eyebrow in interest. “Like what?”

“Well,” Becky leaned forward. “Got a question for you. When you were bringing us down today, did you notice anything unusual? Unexpected course changes, or difficulty maintaining orbit?”

Mary thought about it for a moment. “Nothing major. I had to make a few course corrections, mostly because SCARAB didn’t land where we thought it would. Then again, we never really entered a full, steady orbit. Why?”

“Well, I’ve been looking at some of my surveying equipment to see if it’s calibrated correctly, and at first I thought some of it wasn’t. Several of my ground density sensors were giving me readings that seemed off, but I double checked them and they were all off by the exact same amount. I started looking at some of our other equipment, and I realized that even our mineral weighing scales were off, by the exact same margin.”

“So…what does that mean?” Mary asked patiently.

“Well, I wasn’t sure at first either. At first I thought it might have been because of Tantalus’s thin atmosphere; maybe its lower atmospheric pressure was to blame. But then I brought some of the equipment in from outside, and it had the same variation. There was only one conclusion I could draw at that point.”

“Which was?”

Becky moved closer and lowered her voice, almost conspiratorially. “Tantalus 13 is about 1.2 times the size of Earth, but its gravity is about twenty percent less than Earth’s is. We didn’t feel it because we’d been weightless for so long that any gravity would seem huge, but Tantalus’s gravity is way lower than it should be.”

Mary frowned. “How is that possible?”

Becky shrugged. “No idea. It might be a sign that overall Tantalus has very little in the way of heavy metals, making it less dense than its size would suggest. But that doesn’t match up with the enormous sheet of platinum on our doorstep.”

Mary thought on that one for a bit. “Maybe the platinum isn’t from Tantalus at all. Maybe the asteroid that made this crater didn’t uncover the platinum, but contained the platinum itself.”

“Not a bad theory,” Becky noted. “Though it didn’t much look like that from what I could see on our way in. If that’s the case though, this crater is probably the only spot on the entire planet worth mining.”

“Good thing it’s such a great find then. What does the radar satellite say?”

Becky shook her head. “We won’t be able to receive the data it’s collected until it completes its first orbit. It’ll be in transmission range in about twelve hours. It can detect large metal deposits, but it can’t tell the difference between them, so a vein of platinum will show up the same as a chunk of lead. If it shows us more large deposits of metal of any kind, it’ll completely throw my theory out the window. So for now, we pretty much just need to sit tight and wait for it to come around.”

“Well, one way or another, this mission is still a success,” said Mary. “You can bet Exotech is going to screw us over with the finder’s bonus, though.”

Becky rolled her eyes. “Of course. But even if they just let me keep SCARAB’s good silverware, I’ll be satisfied.” She yawned in an affected way that clearly signified that she had run out of small talk for Mary, stretched, and stood up. “I think I’m going to give sleep another shot. You should get some rest too. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day.”

Mary smiled and nodded. “I will, in a bit. I’m just winding down first.” Becky left the room, and Mary returned to her datapad. She mulled over SCARAB’s data, looking at soil analysis, nearby terrain maps, proposed drilling locations, and other uninteresting things meant for the eggheads in the team. She stared blankly at the screen for about twenty minutes before she realized she hadn’t read a single word of it, then gave up the pretense and tossed the pad on the couch beside her. She stood up and crossed to the main window in the common area. She pressed a button on the wall, and the metallic shutters slid open.

Tantalus’s night cycle was much, much darker than Earth’s night. Because Tantalus was the thirteenth planet from its star, it received very little sunlight even at high noon. The Tantalus system did have a moderate sized brown dwarf called Ixion; a body that had never quite decided on being a small dwarf star or a large gas-giant planet. It orbited between Tantalus 8 and Tantalus 9, but at this time of year it was further from Tantalus 13 than the sun was. Since Tantalus 13 had no moons, the only natural source of illumination came from the trillions of stars above. There were far more of them visible than on the clearest Earth night, due to the rarified atmosphere and the absence of light pollution. The sky looked nearly the same as it had out The Diamelen’s portholes during their long sojourn, only the endlessly deep starfield was sharply interrupted by a horizon so black it almost looked like God had grown tired of painting the stars and simply given up on illuminating the bottom half of creation. Staring out at that vast, empty blackness was eerily like standing on the event horizon of a black hole. The knowledge that there was actually ground out there was only comforting if Mary chose to ignore the fact that she was standing in the sole oasis in the middle of an endless, global desert, where no water had ever flowed, no life had ever grown, and no wind had ever blown.

She was about to shut the shades again when something caught her eye. She squinted and stared out into that endless blackness, just beyond the outer reach of SCARAB’s external lights. She thought she saw something flash, very briefly and very faintly. She continued to watch intently, hoping to catch another glimpse of it. Eventually, she did see another flicker. It was too faint and too fast to observe its source, but it illuminated enough of the ground for her to see that none of SCARAB’s drones were anywhere near it.

She watched a few more of the flickers before she finally decided to go outside. She walked back to the main airlock, opened up her locker, and began getting into her exo-suit.

“I perceive a need: is there anything I can do for you, Mrs. Ketch?” said SCARAB. It spoke softly, but Mary still jumped.

“No, SCARAB, I just want to go for a little walk,” she answered patiently.

“I do not recommend that you leave the facility alone, Mrs. Ketch,” SCARAB said in a stern, cautionary tone. “Exotech expeditionary protocols clearly state that activities outside of pressurized structures must be conducted in pairs, for safety.”

Mary sighed, unzipped the pocket of her flight jacket, and pulled out a card, flashing it around for SCARAB’s omnipresent view to see. “I have a blue-level piloting certification. I’m cleared to pilot any commercial starcraft, make independent alterations to pre-programmed interstellar travel routes, and to go on solo spacewalks at my own discretion. Good enough for you?”

SCARAB made an odd grinding sound before replying. “You have the authority to supersede the prohibitive protocols. However, I do strongly recommend that you not go outside alone, Mrs. Ketch.”

“Noted,” Mary finished getting into her exo-suit, then put the helmet on, sealing it tight. “Open the airlock door, please.”

SCARAB made that strange processing sound, then opened the inner airlock door. “Take care, Mrs. Ketch.”

Mary stepped in, and the door shut behind her. She purged the air from the lock, then opened the outer door. She turned on her helmet’s LED headlamps, as well as the smaller one mounted on her left wrist. Despite the illumination the LEDs provided, stepping out of the airlock was like stepping into oblivion. The ground was so dark, it was may as well not have existed unless light was shone on it, making her feel an irrational fear of stepping out of her own light.

She kept her arm-mounted LED pointed at her feet as she walked. The last thing she wanted was to step wrong on a rock or in a hole and sprain her ankle. As much as she might like Ramanathan, she was definitely not eager to have to rely on his mental competence to treat an injury at the moment. She lifted her gaze and looked at SCARAB’s outer wall. She nearly blinded herself in the process as her headlamps reflected off the mirror-like polished platinum and blasted her in the face. She cursed and looked away, squeezing her eyes shut and watching a pair of purple phantoms dance across the insides of her eyelids. She shook her head and looked up again, careful not to look directly at the wall, and began walking around the base of the donut-shaped ring of SCARAB’s facility.

The building was mounted on a latticework of steel struts, lifting it about two feet above the ground where she stood. As she worked her way around the base, the crater’s slope descended until the building was elevated four feet up. She ducked her head and stepped between two struts, crouching underneath SCARAB. She crept under the building, walking around a number of supports, until she came out on the opposite side from the airlock door, just underneath the common room exterior window. She sat down on the gravelly Tantalus soil, then turned off her lamps.

She was immersed in darkness. Only a faint crack of light escaped from underneath the now closed window shutter, illuminating a long strip of empty ground about fifteen feet from where she sat. She stared past it into the black void beyond, waiting for another of the enigmatic flashes.

She sat there for about five minutes before she finally saw a faint flicker, though it occurred in her peripheral vision, so she was not able to spot its origin before it vanished. She waited a little longer, until finally she saw one. Had she blinked, she would have missed it, but about forty feet away she saw what looked like a miniature lightning bolt flash across the ground.

She pressed a button on her gauntlet that turned on the glow feature for her gauges. It showed her air – still good for another four hours of prolonged use, her vital functions, and her emergency power supply. She was unconcerned by these, however; she was paying close attention at the small cluster of gauges that read “environmental hazards.” They measured things like exterior temperature, radiation levels, and high-voltage electric currents. She stood up slowly, and cautiously began walking toward the exact spot where she had seen the spark of light, glancing down at the gauges as she went.

It was slow work without the lights on, but Mary didn’t want to drown out this odd phenomenon with her high-powered LEDs, so she continued in darkness. Her gauges showed no danger, they lay firmly within the lower acceptable range, but she watched them nonetheless. She stepped past the band of window light, and spotted two more faint flashes in quick succession.

She was nearly to the point where she had seen the flash earlier when she was startled out of her wits by a bright blue bolt of light only two feet in front of her. Her gaze shot down to her gauges just in time to see the one measuring electric current fall from the yellow “caution” level back down to the green. Her eyes darted back to the spot on the ground, and she saw a strange, fading afterimage.

It was a spidery tangle of some sort of fibers. Its configuration was strangely organic, like veins or roots, and it glowed with a faint aqua hue. She reached down to touch the ground, watching as her electricity gauge rose subtly into the upper green range, and she brushed some of the soil away. By now the glow had completely vanished, but she could feel the spaghetti-like texture with her fingers, telling her something physical was certainly there. She flipped on her headlamps again to get a better look.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t much easier to see with the lights on: the strange fibers were a transparent bluish-white, almost quartz-like, but perfectly smooth and tubular. They spread across the ground in a root-like shape; the whole cluster of strands roughly four feet across at its largest point. It was so faint that Mary doubted she would have been able to see it in daylight. In fact, if she hadn’t been looking for it, she didn’t think she would have noticed the strands if she’d been down on one knee with her hand on top of them, as she was now. Though these fibers obviously carried an electric charge somehow, they didn’t show any other unique traits as far as she could tell. Out of further curiosity, she tried pulling at a loop of the fiber. To her surprise, it was slightly flexible, unlike any kind of mineral formation she’d ever heard of.

She sat there pondering the cluster of fibers for several minutes. She lifted her head, glancing around to see if she could locate any others like it. What she found instead were the glinting, quad-lensed stares of six of SCARAB’S remote drones, standing motionlessly in a half circle, just beyond her headlamps’ reach.

She froze. How long has it been watching me out here? She wondered. How long have those things been sitting out there?

Cautiously, she activated her suit’s radio. “SCARAB, what are you doing?”

SCARAB’s reply was immediate and sounded strangely rehearsed. “As I said, Mrs. Ketch, it is dangerous for anyone to go outside unaccompanied. Since you insisted, I thought I would supervise your outdoor activity remotely, should you require assistance with anything.”

“You needed six of your drones to do that? You could have monitored me with one of them; shouldn’t the rest be out gathering resources or something? This seems really inefficient of you.”

She heard that unsettling grinding sound SCARAB had been making so much lately. “My greatest concern is the preservation of life, Mrs. Ketch. It is my great pleasure to sacrifice productivity for your security.”

“What kind of danger do you think I can get into out here, SCARAB?” Mary asked impatiently. “It’s a barren planet! It’s not like there are street thugs running around or unmarked landmines to watch out for. Nothing’s out here but me and you.”

SCARAB’s tone sounded almost indignant. “There are many potential safety risks out here, Mrs. Ketch. Loose stones, drilling pits, and power lines pose significant threats in this level of illumination.”

“Whatever, SCARAB.” Mary pulled a small, red marking pennant from her satchel and stuck it in the ground near the fibers. She stood up, and walked back toward the building. She’d had more than enough of SCARAB’s weirdness for the night; she would wait until she could share this find with actual human beings in the morning.

As she entered SCARAB’s outer airlock door, one of the drones rolled over to the strange electric fibers. Its multi-articulated torso bent down, and it grasped Mary’s red pennant with its manipulator claw. It plucked the flag from the ground, placed it deftly into its mineral storage bin, then wheeled off toward SCARAB’s smelting furnace.


Next Chapter: Chapter One