Skeet punched a hole in the rock face, then followed it with another. Then she kicked a hole in the hard surface and followed that with an ever-harder kick. Rocks exploded under the hammer blows of her powered suit like popcorn. The alloy skeleton fitted her short body like a second skin and raised her strength to inhuman levels.
If there had been any oxygen in the asteroid’s tunnels she and her colleagues would have all been deaf by now, but as it was they beat their way through the ancient rock in darkness and hard vacuum.
She wasn’t blind, though, none of them were. Each of the dwarf miners could see what they and the others were doing, how they were breathing, heart rates, everything, thanks to the glow of wraparound graphics in their helmets. Everything around them was modelled, mapped, and monitored in sharp detail.
“Hey Skeet, are you trying to produce sand or something? If you keep hitting so hard those rocks will soon be a beach,” said Rinx.
“Naah, she’s trying to knock this big lump out of sun orbit.”
Skeet checked her head-up display. It was Senza, over in tunnel one.
“It’s just boxing practice,” she said, grinning to herself. It felt good to get a sweat on. Bam. Bam. Bam.
“Are you winning on points, you crazy midget?” Said Bloot, punching above her own considerable weight over in tunnel three.
“Of course she is,” said Senza, chuckling. “It’s a defenseless enemy.”
“Steady Missy,” Skeet growled, pretending to be annoyed, “you’ll be thanking me for practicing my moves when we bump into some silicon-based life forms. I’ll be the rock smashing expert and you’ll end up as their carbon-based slaves. Although, thinking about it Senza, you would probably enjoy having a rubber collar and a regular whipping,” and laughter broke out in all their head sets.
“I won’t be a carbon-based slave,” said Bloot. “I’m usually at least 83% alcohol.”
“And 17% gas,” said Senza.
“That’s true,” said Bloot. “I like to keep a little gas in the tank for my Zero G maneuvering. Hey, Senza, when we get back to Solway Station we could have a race,” she said. “I’m pretty sure you’d win it.”
“Really? That’s very kind of you to say so.”
“Yeah, there’s more gas comes out of your mouth than my butt so you’d win by 10 metres easy.”
Everybody laughed at that one, and on it went. This was how the privateer crew got through their work days, breaking holes into solid rock until they chanced upon something worth selling.
The asteroid was a nice find. Early indications that this sullen lump was veined with some very exotic metals indeed had proved to be true. Their ship the Umbilical Discord had drawn to a halt only tens of metres away from the slowly tumbling mountain of rock and ice and surveyed it with a mixture of hope and curiosity. “Maybe they won’t have to sell me after all,” it thought to itself. It was classed as artificial intelligence, but that intelligence was not particularly high, and it seemed to view life with great weariness.
Perhaps it found the endless prospecting for rare metals and minerals a bit depressing. Many of these rocky wanderers showed promise on the first scan, but it was still like panning for gold when you got down to the surface. You had to rinse through an awful lot of silt before you chanced upon any worthwhile nuggets.
The miners had donned their excavator suits, pulsed over to the surface and commenced hammering, drilling and lasering away at the most promising spots. Quite soon the four partners had excavated long tunnels as wide as themselves into the cold, hard body of Ariadne 277K.
Thousands, maybe millions of asteroids like it circled the sun between Mars and Jupiter, and huge reserves of precious metals were thought to be sitting there, cruising round the sun and waiting to be mined. Skeet pounded the rocks some more, then eased off when she decided her heart rate was high enough.
She switched to the breaker in her right arm and began working the face that way instead. The asteroid was zero-g, so she had to anchor herself using her gravboots. They were one of the few bits of higher tech that the partners could afford and one of the most useful.
Behind her and behind each one of them, a small team of analysts got to work on the excavated rocks. They couldn’t afford gravboots on their hourly wages so they floated around as they tested for hints and traces of the possible treasures that might be lurking there.
“Having fun guys?” She called back to the metallurgy ‘Grunts,’ but all three of them ignored her. A grunt was usually all you got out of them, hence the name. They were not particularly sociable, clones often weren’t. They stuck together and just got on with their job, moving the debris back through the tunnel and scanning it for traces of precious metals with their portable rigs.
As she turned back, the breaker lurched forward as the wall gave way. “Woah!” She said. “I just punched through into one of your tunnels. Whose is it?”
“Wrong,” said Rinx. “None of our tunnels have crossed. We’re all fanning out from the entry point so they shouldn’t cross at all. Did you find a cave?”
“I must have,” said Skeet. She peered through the metre-wide hole so that her suit could update the HUD display. When it did, she got a little shiver. This looked weird. The display pictured a 3D blue line illustration showing outlines and contours of what was in front of her. Normally the rock face looked like a scribble of jagged, uneven bands, but inside the display was showing smooth, featureless walls. It wasn’t a cave in there, it was a tunnel.
“Why didn’t scans pick this up?” Rinx asked.
“We can’t afford that kind of tech,” Senza sighed.
“I need to get in there for a better look,” and Skeet stepped up eagerly. A couple of punches knocked away enough rock to fit her short body through. She shouldn’t have been nervous at all, what with her wraparound display, numerous sensors, motion detectors, atmospheric analyzers and so on, but just a hint of disquiet had taken root.
It might have been a lot of reassuring tech, but it felt like a barrier between her and what was real. She would have much preferred just to look into the dark tunnel with her own eyes and a splash of real light. Her senses may not have been as highly tuned as those of the suit, but they were hers, and she trusted them.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Said Senza sharply. “Your suit says that you just went to visual.”
“Well done for paying attention,” said Skeet. “I fancy a little looksee at what’s going on in here.” Her visor flipped up, and she felt relieved to look out through the goldfish bowl of her helmet. Natural lights flickered on around the rim and brought the dark scene to life. Her eyes took a few moments to adjust to the shadowy gloom and when they did she gave a little involuntary gasp.
“What?” Bloot asked with just a touch of concern in her voice.
“Sorry, that was just surprise getting the better of me.” She pulled one gloved hand free of her mining skeleton’s hammer fist and ran it along the glassy tunnel wall. “It’s so smooth in here; let me share the visual.” And she did. She cast her gaze around so the others could get a look. They could all see that the tunnel was perfectly smooth like the inside of a tube as if a worm two metres across had slipped past this way, polishing the rock to a mirror finish. She turned, and it was the same in the other direction.
The others digested the scene in silence. Each of them trying to work out what might have caused this. It was definitely not the product of any natural process; how could it be? They were in the guts of an age-old rock a kilometer across that was slowly tumbling end over end in a circuit around the sun. It was 4 billion years old and should have been a blob of solid rock with the occasional cave thrown in.
“Maybe it’s military,” said Rinx.
“Government?” Skeet said, pondering. “No couldn’t be.”
“Why not?” Senza asked.
“Because they’ve done a good job. Hey, Discord,” Skeet said to the ship. “are there any external holes, places where this thing might exit to the surface?”
“I scanned it earlier. No,” it said, sounding slightly depressed as usual.
“Thanks, sunshine,” Skeet replied, cheerily. “You are a godsend.” She smiled to herself. That was usually enough to annoy it.
She moved forward slowly. Motion and heat scanners were all quiet, so there shouldn’t be anything in there to surprise her, but the eerie darkness and the fact that this boulder was a third as old as the Universe itself gave her a little twist in her guts. This smooth tunnel must have been created entirely from within, and she began to wonder what other secrets this rolling mountain was holding onto. “That thing is impossible. It shouldn’t be there,” said Senza.
“Where did all the excavated rock go? Rinx wondered. “It couldn’t have evaporated.”
“Maybe this is just a bizarre once-in-a-universe natural phenomenon,” said Bloot, hopefully.
“That sounds plausible,” Senza mused. “I mean, your face is a once in a universe natural phenomenon, and it still exists, doesn’t it?”
“That’s a good one Senza. Keep talking poop until your suit fills up,” said Rinx, but Bloot only chuckled. She was virtually impossible to upset.
“Hey Bloot, heads or tails?” Skeet asked.
“Tails,” said Bloot. “Why?”