Finally, he had been chosen. He’d spent twelve years working the Kuiper belt, refining the processes and approaches for unmanned ships containing robot miners. He was one of the Company’s best engineers, and he was the only engineer who could pilot the special mining frigates. These purpose-built spacecraft were small and nimble. A three-person command pod was attached to a narrow back end which contained as few as two or as many as 24 bins. He, himself, had invented the unique locking clasps that made the bin technology possible during his first year with the Company. He had been deemed too valuable an asset to be sent on any of the missions into the scattered disc. That all changed with the discovery of molybdenum globules on one of the objects near Eris.
It was all by accident, really. An unmanned frigate had mistakenly scraped a 10-pound bit of ore off a rock due to a programming error. The processing plant on Ganymede had tagged it as an anomaly. Being the senior engineer at the Ganymede plant, he was one of the first and only humans to have touched this new kind of molybdenum.
The chief chemist at Company headquarters on Earth theorized that the molybdenum had cooled rapidly when it formed. This intense cooling seemed to have given the metal special properties; in fact, so unique were these properties that a limited number of employees were aware of this mission at all. Its clandestine nature was custom-made for him since he was, after all, an engineer and a pilot, which meant one fewer person aware of the mission.
Neptune was the name given to the frigate at his command. The bureaucrats in the Company allowed ships to be named celestial bodies as long as the size of the ship was in contrast to the size of the body. In this case because the namesake was a large planet, a tiny frigate was allowed to use the name.
The Company had one competitor in the trans-Neptunian corridor, and that was the Callisto colony, the site of an old refueling base. People had been living on Callisto for 400 years. Infamous for its robots, Callisto was able to create amazing androids and machines because it was the only known civilization without any ethics laws governing robot manufacturing or fabrication of artificial minds. He sometimes wondered whether Callisto had any engineers as good as he was.
Triton was home to the Company’s Kuiper launch facility. “The funky gravity makes it ideal for launching spacecraft into the corridor,” an aerospace specialist had told him. Triton is where the Neptune would initiate its secret mission, but it would make one more stop before heading to its destination.
The Orcus outpost had existed for 150 years. It was the least known of all the outer system facilities with few people having actually lived at the facility. The Neptune, unmanned, would arrive from Triton, go through final calibrations, then be on its way.
While ensconced in the inconsiderable yet comfortable Orcus lab, he studied the schematics of his soon-to-be ship. Ever since the invention of the near-fusion micro-reactor engine, spaceflight had become exponentially faster, and engine rooms had become engine boxes, small enough to rest on a dining room table. While the engine encompassed only 10 square feet, the remainder of the ship consisted of holding containers, a three-seat command area, and one common room for eating, sleeping, and working. The Neptune was a custom version of the frigates he had flown, ships designed for extracting materials from tiny celestial bodies. Objects such as meteors, asteroids, and ring debris were the new frontier in specialized mining.
Headquarters on Earth had sent instructions on calibrating the Orcus scanners, so a determination could be made for the candidates most likely to contain the special molybdenum globules. Initial results were promising. The scans found 434 candidates in the greater Kuiper corridor. The ore specialist chose the candidate dubbed, “Haumea’s Child,’ because of its proximity to Orcus. The other candidates were farther out into the scattered disc.
On the morning of the launch the ore specialist awoke with a temperature of 104. There were other ore workers, but none had the necessary security clearance.
“I can do this myself,” he muttered, “No need to wait two additional weeks for a new flight path to be calculated by the computers.” He was assembling the courage to ask the Company to pilot the mission solo. ‘Would they even consider such a thing?’ he wondered.
He couldn’t believe it; he had been given the green light. There hadn’t even been a fuss from management. ‘Get the ore and come back,’ they told him. He was to leave that evening!
The launch was uneventful. Once out of Orcus’ gravity, he went to the common room and reviewed how to operate the drill. He then secured himself in his sleep chamber.
When the proximity notification sounded, he peered out the window.
“Just as I imagined it,” he thought.
Haumea’s Child appeared oblong, though not as cylindrical as Haumea itself. Child was hundreds of times smaller than Haumea. He readied himself for landing.
The Neptune touched down. During the landing sequence the ship took atmospheric readings and reported them to the command screen. ‘Stable’ glowed. The display confirmed the special molybdenum precisely where the long-range scanners had predicted. An unusual amount of dust, along with two large boulders, were also reported.
‘Lots of dust for such an icy place,’ he thought.
As he walked toward the site, he sensed a vibration in the tips of his gloves. It quickly ceased, so he paid no attention to it. He knelt at the site and set the small, rectangular drill box onto the surface. As his right hand turned the dial to begin the extraction process, he felt tight pressure around each ankle as if a rope had been tightened, then a sudden jerk. He fell face down into the dust. Something was dragging him by both his legs! He could see only dust and small stones. He twisted his torso and craned his neck to see what was pulling him. To his amazement he saw six miniature people, two-feet in height, none of which were wearing spacesuits. Instantly, he knew better. They weren’t humans at all; these were androids! ‘Incredible,’ he thought. Each time he struggled, writhed, one of them would jump with pressure onto his back forcing him down again. He couldn’t escape. Accepting his impending imprisonment, he vocalized the automatic distress signal. Ironically, he had reset his phrase that very morning.
“Sickness, I can still do this. Sickness, I can still do this,” he spoke aloud, his voice transmitting to the Neptune, and his ship relaying the signal to both Orcus and Triton. Helpless on his stomach he had an epiphany: no rescue would come. This mission was covert. He ceased resisting, and the robots pulled him into their ship. Inside was dim. Working together, all six androids flipped him onto his back. Flat on the floor face up, as belts emerged from either side of his torso and immobilized him, he thought to himself, ‘I was so close.’ The androids held his arms and legs as the belts tightened. Robots tugged the belt clasps to make sure they were secure. His eyes strained to see the ceiling screen. Did humans use this ship? He discerned lines on the screen, trajectories; it was a flight plan. He recognized Neptune, Saturn, and the point where the line terminated.
“Callisto,” he uttered.
He felt the ship shudder. Takeoff was imminent. ‘Wait,’ a memory crashed into his mind from his pilot training, ‘the pulse.’ A failsafe device was installed on a craft if it were used by both humans and robots, protection in case of robot malfunction.
“Pilot to Neptune,” he said.
“Neptune copy,” replied the female voice he had programmed.
“Engage EMP, directional.”
She replied, “Engage EMP, directional. Please confirm.”
“Target focus: pilot,” he said.
“Engage EMP, directional. Target focus: pilot. Please confirm.”
He answered, “Confirmed. Engage.”
Inside went dark. He felt a faint knock on both wrists. The clasps securing the wrist restraints had dynamic maglocks, controlled by low-level electricity. ‘I should be able to work my hands out now,’ he surmised, since the belts slackened a tiny amount when the maglocks below the floor lost power.
After a couple minutes of twisting and pulling, he freed his right wrist, then his left. He retrieved a small blade from his suit pouch and cut his torso straps, then his ankle straps. He was free.
“Pilot to Neptune.”
“Neptune copy,” she replied.
“Cancel distress signal. Relay message: all is fine,” he said satisfactorily.
“Cancel distress signal. Relay message: all is fine. Please confirm.”
“Confirmed,” he replied.
He traversed the short distance from the androids’ ship back to the drill site. He knelt and turned the dial to start the ore extraction process.
Source: Auto Draft