The Asteroid Resource Ministry inspected and approved any asteroid deflection to Earth’s orbit. Without A.R.M. a mistake might cost countless lives.

Cate Hadley took her responsibility as a new A.R.M. inspector seriously. She knew what an asteroid strike meant, ever since seeing the Chelyabinsk meteor.

People counted on her. They depended on her. Both on Earth and those risking their lives to mine the asteroids. She thought she knew everything she needed to know.

🚀

Ordinarily, Cate Hadley was always about the next question. Not now. Her throat was dry, mouth tacky. Memories crowded one another, leaving her tongue-tied.

🚀

The cratered landscape filling the screen wasn’t a moon or a planet. It was an asteroid. The surface was sculpted in shades of gray from the light highlands to the darker impact pits of past encounters. A pitted potato-shape tumbling across the star field.

Cate crossed her fingers against adding a new impact scar to the landscape.

Surely there wasn’t much of a chance of that happening. Not on her first trip out to inspect the StarMines facilities. The engineers for this inspection trip must have calculated every possible variable. The pilots in the belly of the Yakima wouldn’t let it drift past the safety lines. It wasn’t as if the uneven gravity of AE-37489X was even that strong. In order for them to crash into the asteroid the engines would have to fire and drive them straight into the asteroid, and with the feeble thrust of the ion engines they would probably just bump off of it anyway. They’d already matched its orbit around the sun and were now just nudging closer.

Of course, there were rumors about StarMines, but those had to be just rumors. She didn’t really believe that they would sabotage anything. They didn’t need to. And the pilots wouldn’t let that happen. Even if the unexpected did happen, she was in about the safest place possible.

The Yakima was a craft made in layers, a celestial soccer ball kicked out here to make a goal. The outer framework held the clusters of ion thrusters. Within that was the water storage layer, like a thin tank wrapping around the entire craft to provide radiation protection as well as water, oxygen and hydrogen fuel for the thrusters. Next came the other storage compartments, the life-support systems, and other mechanical layers of the ship, all spread out around the ship with multiple redundancies. Laboratories, workspaces, social and equipment bays took up most of the rest of the space. Deep within the Yakima, the last layer before the core, were the habitation pods. They wrapped around the command core where the pilots worked, protected at the very heart of the ship like worms in the middle of an apple. She was right above the core, strapped safely in her cabin.

It was a safe design. A smart design. They wouldn’t crash into the asteroid.

Cate caught her drifting tablet and brought it back around to study the briefing materials. She had to be ready before Brandon called her. He was the senior agent on this mission, evaluating her for her final approval as an inspector for the Asteroid Resource Ministry.

The asteroid tagged AE-37489X was claimed by StarMines, the leading corporate supplier of space-based resources to Earth’s growing bottom-line. After centuries of resource exploitation on Earth, the environmental and real costs had finally driven people into space to harness the riches just waiting to be captured, diverted and mined to supply humanity’s ever-growing hunger.

A.R.M.’s mission was to make sure it was done safely. Diverting huge chunks of metal and rock toward Earth represented an enormous opportunity for disaster if there were any mistakes. An asteroid like AE-37489X, at 15,000 tons, had the potential to level cities. They couldn’t afford mistakes.

In theory, the inspection shouldn’t be difficult. She’d tour the StarMines facilities, evaluate their plans, and likely give them the approval they needed to move forward. Brandon Meyer, her supervisor for this inspection, was there to evaluate her performance. Ultimately the decision was hers to make. If StarMines wasn’t in compliance with the law, it would face hefty fines. Particularly egregious violations could even include the abandonment of their claim on this asteroid, although she hadn’t heard of that ever happening. The deep space mining concerns frowned heavily on claim jumping in any form.

On the screen, a new bright shape emerged from behind AE-37489X. It was the StarMines’ Eureka. Much, much bigger than the Yakima. The Eureka was a wide starfish design. The ship would latch onto the asteroid with its arms. Once anchored the solar sail would blossom out from the core of the ship, spreading hundreds of kilometers out around the asteroid. Using the solar sail to capture the sunlight, and use that light force to change the trajectory of the asteroid, they’d break an orbit followed for billions of years. The asteroid would take up one designed to bring it to Earth’s orbit, to orbit the Earth itself.

During the long trip, the Eureka would mine and process the asteroid, filling ore pods for easy transport down to the surface.

It sounded so simple until you started looking at all of the details. Everything had to go right for this to work. It was an operation costing billions, with an enormous potential payoff along with enormous risk. It was right there on her screen. She was really here, out further than the Moon’s orbit.

Cate hugged the tablet to her chest.

Too bad there wasn’t time to savor this moment. It was a victory, an achievement she had worked for since first seeing the images of the Chelyabinsk meteor. It was in Mr. Coffey’s science class in the seventh grade. He had shown them recordings people made of the event and talked about the risks with proposals to move asteroids into orbits around the Earth or the Moon. And he had said the words that changed her life.

“Someone’s going to have to make sure we don’t end up like the dinosaurs!” Mr. Coffey had laughed when he said it, and most of the class laughed with him.

She hadn’t found it funny. The prospect of mass extinctions caused by impact events wasn’t a laughing matter, it was horror on an unimaginable level. The sort of asteroids that the mining concerns worked with weren’t planet killers, not yet, but even something like AE-37489X could flatten entire cities depending on how it came in. Thanks to A.R.M., no one moved asteroids without approval. Too often, though, she felt that the hunger for additional profits was the focus instead of safety.

Cate refocused on the tablet instead of the wall screen. She was here to make sure safety was the number one priority. From the display, she had time for one more scan through the inspection points before docking. She had to focus on the job. This wasn’t a sight-seeing trip.

🚀

Peter Bonner, the Eureka’s captain, looked like a poster child for an all-American hero. He was handsome and filled out his blue StarMines t-shirt very nicely. There was the StarMines star and asteroid logo on his chest and an American flag on his shoulder. On the ground he must have been over six-feet tall, but up here he had his legs tucked up behind him as he held onto two grips on the rim of the hatch.

He wasn’t alone either. His department chiefs floated in the corridor behind him. But it was Bonner that was in charge, no question of that. Cate passed through the lock between their ships and caught a toe-grip mid-way. She nodded at Bonner.

“Captain Bonner, A.R.M. Inspector Hadley. Permission to come aboard?”

Bonner smiled. “Of course Ms. Hadley. We’ve been eager for your visit. We’re ready to grab this rock and start for home.”

“I hope to get you underway as quick as I can,” Cate said.

Brandon drifted into the airlock behind her and floated past, laughing. “Come here you bastard!”

Brandon Meyer was a lean man in his fifties, hair that remained above his ears gone to gray, but he was all sharp corners. Military and government astronaut program training, he was part of the first generation of A.R.M. inspectors, back when they were launching the first sample missions.

He enveloped Bonner in a bear hug. Bonner let go of one grip and braced his opposite foot against a grip to hold his position in the open hatch.

“Brandon, what are you doing here? Now we get two inspectors?”

Brandon broke away, grabbing his own grips. “Actually, I’m just here observing Ms. Hadley. She’s the inspector on file. Cate’s the finest of the new A.R.M. Inspectors. You’d better have all vectors nailed down for this one, Brandon.”

“Still, it’s good to see you. You’ll have to come by for a drink.” Bonner grabbed his grip and looked past Brandon at Cate. “Water, inspector. I run a dry ship, just like the regs say.”

“Since when,” Brandon said.

Bonner laughed. “Now, don’t go making me look bad in front of Ms. Hadley.”

“You? Look bad? Who would believe it?”

Bonner chuckled. “Come on Ms. Hadley, let me introduce you to my chiefs. You’ll be working mostly with them for your inspections.”

It was nice that he remembered she was there. She remembered Brandon saying that he knew Bonner, but the way they acted, it looked like more than that. They were old friends. It shouldn’t matter, but she believed in the A.R.M. regulations that mandated a professional distance. How else were you going to levy fines for violations, if that was necessary? It’d be a lot harder to question a claim when the captain was an old buddy. Fortunately, in this case, Brandon wasn’t the inspector on file. Not for the Eureka, at least. Just her.

She kicked off from the toe-grip and drifted over to the open hatch. Brandon drifted back, but when she caught a ring on the hatch she was floating in close proximity between Brandon and the captain. There was a familiar sweat smell from Brandon, less from the captain, but both smelled very male. They blocked her in with their bulk.

Almost in the same instant that she noticed it, Bonner pushed off the hatch into the corridor. He caught himself on his fingertips and gestured at the others gathered.

“Let me introduce you.”

Cate drifted forward into the corridor, with nearly a half-dozen people lining the space, including the captain. She’d read their profiles in the briefing, but it was an expected formality to be introduced.

First, across from Bonner, was a young woman. Her black hair was very short, mere fuzz on her head. Bioluminescent tattoos glittered on her delicate earlobes and trailed down her neck like smoke. The colors flushed and faded across the spectrum.

“Airi Momoi,” Bonner said. “Environmental systems chief.”

“Hello,” Cate said.

Airi smiled. “Welcome aboard!”

Next was a young man with wild red hair and freckles. His round face was no doubt emphasized by the weightless conditions, and it probably made him look younger than he was. He nodded and gave her a shy smile.

“Tyler Nice,” pronounced Neece by Bonner, “Refinery chief.”

“Hi,” Tyler said.

He was not at all what she would have expected from a refinery chief, but she kept that observation to herself.

“Hello,” she said.

Next up was a man that she could have easily seen as a refinery chief. He lacked legs below mid-thigh, but he had a massive broad chest and muscular arms. His right arm showed a landscape of pink scars and hairless patches, like the tortured terrain of an alien moon. He was mostly bald, with a few white hairs clipped short on the sides of his head. The top of his pink scalp gleamed beneath the lights. A big white mustache that reached out to either side of his wide face.

“Milo Service,” Bonner said behind her. “Crew chief, and a fantastic cook.”

“Ah, learned a few things, is all, in my grandpap’s restaurant.” Milo extended his right hand, the skin as scarred and melted as his arm.

She didn’t hesitate as she shook. “Nice to meet you.”

“Naw,” Milo said. He twitched his head at Tyler. “He’s nice, I’m serviceable.”

He roared with laughter. Cate tried hard not to blush, which simply made it worse.

“No disrespect, ma’am,” Milo said. “I like to kid, is all.”

“I figured that out already,” Cate said, which had everyone chuckling.

The last person was a fortyish man, dark hair that drifted around his head a bit, with a sharp nose and dark eyes. He nodded in greeting.

“Kyle Thornton,” Bonner said. “Science chief.”

“Hi.” Cate caught a grip at the end of the corridor and turned to face the crew. “Thank you all. I appreciate your welcome. I know that it can be difficult having a stranger come in and look at your work, but I’m only here to help. Our mission at A.R.M. is to help protect and develop the use of asteroid materials. I’m sure you all agree that when the consequences of a mistake are so high, it makes sense to have someone else take a look and do an inspection before we take that next step.”

Bonner floated up beside her. “Of course, Ms. Hadley. This isn’t our first rodeo. Now, if you’ll accompany me, why don’t we go on to my office? We can see about that drink and talk about the schedule.”

He couldn’t have surprised her more if he had invited her to take a stroll out on the asteroid without a suit. He was an experienced captain, surely he didn’t think that he could dictate a schedule? It’d hardly be an impartial inspection if she was shepherded around and only shown what they wanted to show her when they wanted her to see it.

“I’d rather just get started, captain.” She was aware of all of the eyes on her, including Brandon’s, but she was the inspector here. “My authority as an A.R.M. inspector gives me full access to your ship, operations, and network.”

Brandon chuckled. “I told you, Pete. Gotta watch those vectors.”

Bonner smiled. “I didn’t mean to suggest anything else, Ms. Hadley. You’ve had a long trip, and well, we’re not really in a position out here to get visitors. It’ll be another year before we get back to Earth. I was just trying to get you in my office so the rest of these folks could set up a reception we’d planned for you and your crew. A bit of fun before we get down to the business ahead.”

Now she felt like she’d been at a full burn launch only to have the rockets die beneath her. Weightlessness hadn’t bothered her until now, and suddenly she was queasy.

Bonner reached out for her hand and took it in his strong grip. She clenched tight, grateful  for the anchor.

“And that drink, it’s strictly within regs. Okay?”

Cate took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, Captain. I apologize for misunderstanding. That sounds very nice, thank you. Thank all of you, I didn’t expect that sort of welcome.”

Milo snorted. “Aye, it’ll be a grand party, if you can give us a chance to get ready.”

“Thank you,” Brandon said. “That’s fine. Come on Bonner, let’s see about that drink!”

🚀

The docking shaft took them deeper into the ship, to the heart at the center of the Eureka’s starfish-shape. At the heart of the arms was a spherical shape much like that of the Yakima. She followed Bonner through the passages, past bulkheads at each layer, down into the heart of the ship and then to a pod that looked out into the central command core.

Down below, the crew worked in the heart of the ship. Given the weightless environment, there were crew stations all around the void at the center of the ship, and in the very middle floated a holographic simulation of the ship, the asteroid, the Yakima and surrounding space. Bonner’s office was a pod with a transparent hexagonal wall looking into the command sphere. From here he could see what was going on in the core, and join in as needed. That “wall” was a smart display.

The office was a fish-bowl, and he had decorated it appropriately in deep blues and greens. It had an aquatic feel to it, heightened by air-adapted fish that swam around the space. A clown fish swam close to her, watching her with its fishy eyes before it turned and swam off with lazy flicks of its tail. Mesh containers around the room held a collection of air-adapted kelp and other sea plants. The air was warm, salt-tinged and humid.

Bonner floated over to the left wall. He pressed a panel and it slid out, revealing a tray full of transparent spheres. The light in the drawer refracted through the spheres to cast shadows on the walls. He took one out and tossed it across the room in her direction. Two clown fish swam away from it.

Cate caught the bulb. It was full of a transparent liquid.

Bonner tossed another to Brandon, then took a third out and kept it when he touched the drawer and it withdrew into the wall. He hoisted the bulb he held.

“To life,” he said. An angel fish drifted close, as if curious about the bulb. “In all of its diversity.”

Cate had never seen any of the air-adapted fish in person, although she knew that they were popular pets with crew on long-duration missions. Medical treatments for bone loss and radiation damage had opened up deep space as much as any other technology. Along with those advancements and the availability of resources, the space population had exploded.

A small shark, the size of her hand, quickly swam across the room and hid behind a screen of kelp plants.

The bulb in her hand was cold and already was starting to sweat in the warmer air. The guys were already lifting their bulbs and she copied the gesture. When she sipped from the valve, crisp water pooled in her mouth. It slid across the skin of her tongue. Rich, mineral-flavored, and very satisfying when she swallowed.

“Water as old as the solar system,” Bonner said, holding the bulb up to the light. “It’s from the Axial comet mission. I picked up a couple cases before they went down the well. Sometimes it’s nice to drink something that hasn’t been filtered through us and our systems a thousand times already.”

Cate took another sip. It really was good. The cold worked its way down into her chest. It really was incredible to drink water billions of years old. Axial’s water cost dearly back on Earth. “It’s delicious. Thank you.”

Brandon had drifted over to the big smart screen looking out at the core. “You’ve got a nice operation here, Pete.”

Bonner pushed off the wall and drifted over to the wall-screen. His feet landed, and stuck to the floor. He wore magnetic slippers. He shuffled his feet in the characteristic walk over to the screen.

“Yes. It is. We have a good crew.”

Cate pushed off the wall, sending a group of fish swimming away from her, to drift over to the wall screen. When she got there she stopped her motion with a light touch on the screen. It lit up with a green outline around her hand.

She drew her hand back. On the other side, the crew were working at stations all around the chamber. Those closest were visible, strapped in, monitoring various ship systems and the asteroid. The holographic display really looked like an opening in the middle of the ship to the outside, a portal set off in the distance above the asteroid, Eureka, and the smaller Yakima docked with the mining craft. It looked as if she could pass through that portal and find herself floating out in open space.

Of course, it was an illusion. Cate let the bulb float beside her and reached out, resting her index fingers on the wall surface and traced a circle. The screen-wall illuminated the line with a glowing green circle. She pulled her hands back and the view within the circle zoomed in on the hologram until it looked as if there was now a portal within the surface of the wall itself. Cate swiped with her right hand, scrolling the view until the Eureka came into view. It hovered above the asteroid like a spider waiting to strike.

“Do you know where you want to start?” Bonner said. “I’m only curious, I’m not trying to influence you one way or the other.”

Cate smiled at him. “I’ve already started, Captain. It started as soon as we came aboard. I appreciate the chance to see your workspace.”

A clown fish circled her floating bulb before swimming away.

“The fish bring a lot of character to the space,” she said. “Have any of them ever escaped out into the corridors?”

Brandon laughed.

“I had an eel once,” Bonner said. “It was always trying to get out of this room. I finally traded it away for a jellyfish, but that died shortly after I got it.”

“Do they create a hygienic problem?”

“No. The environmental system deals with their detritus as well as our own. We haven’t seen any issues. I like their company, and they’re much less demanding than terrestrial pets.”

Cate recaptured the bulb and took another drink of the ancient water. It made her feel connected to the beginnings of time. At least as far as the solar system was concerned. Water molecules from back then, finally entering a living organism for the first time. It was incredible.

She refocused on the display of the ships. There was a lot to do. She needed to look into each of the systems, their analysis of the asteroid, capture plans, navigation, all of it. She wasn’t expected to know better than the experts, but she was trained to catch obvious errors that could lead to bigger problems down the line. As long as everything looked good, there shouldn’t be any problem with approving the Eureka crew to move forward.

🚀

The next morning, after an evening spent in the reception that never seemed to end, Cate made her way out to the asteroid-facing side of Eureka, to the third arm where she’d been told that Tyler Nice was working to prepare the refinery drones. She found him in a wide tube with a guide rail down the center, and drones arrayed around the sides, one row after another. Stowed like this the drones all resembled lawnmower-sized trilobites. Tyler was mid-way down the tube, with the front ‘head’ of one of the drones pulled open. It was hinged at the bottom of the section. He grinned when she got close.

“That was some reception last night,” he said. He chuckled. “I think your boss had fun singing.”

The image of Brandon Meyer trying his hand at karaoke in the crew mess was not something she would soon forget.

“Yes,” she said. “He did, but he’s not my boss.”

Tyler’s freckled forehead wrinkled. “He’s not?”

“Nope. He’s here to observe my work, that’s all. He’ll report on how the inspection goes. It’s mostly a formality that A.R.M. likes to follow, a passing of the torch to new inspectors.”

“That’s still nice,” Tyler said. He pointed a probe he held at the drone. “Is it okay, if I?”

“Yes. I’m not here to interrupt. If you need me to be quiet, just let me know.”

Tyler hooked his toes beneath the head of another drone. He poked the probe into the drone’s head. “Nope. Doesn’t bother me. Too quiet around here, sometimes.”

“You’re calibrating the drones?” Cate took out her tablet to make notes.

“No, they’re already calibrated. I’m just running another diagnostic series. It’s a new month today. I do the diagnostics each month so that we know each arm has a series of viable drones to work with.”

“And these are autonomous robots, right?”

“Yep. Point ‘em at the target and they’ll dig it up and bring it back for refining.”

“How many?”

“Two-fifty, all set and ready to go,” Tyler said. “There are fifty in each tube like this, one per arm. These are our worker bees.”

“How have you addressed the fragmentation problem?” It was one of the nightmare scenarios with asteroid recovery if drones such as these tunneled into the asteroid and introduced fractures then the whole thing might fall apart as it entered orbit. Big chunks of metal-rich asteroid raining down on the planet was a good recipe for a bad day. Not to mention the losses for the company.

Tyler grinned. “StarMines is using a layered approach. Our friends here work in tandem to cut off one layer at a time. We give them a digital plane and they work together to harvest anything above that plane. Then we drop it down and they take the next layer. The beauty of it is that they’re fusing the surface as they work. It looks polished. It actually makes the asteroid stronger than it was before we got started even though we’re whittling it away.”

She’d heard about the technique but hadn’t yet seen it in action. “Can you show me a simulation? If it isn’t too much trouble?”

“Sure.” Tyler closed the head of the drone he was working on and pushed off to grab the guide rail. “Let’s go back up to my workshop, and we can do that.”

🚀

Later, for lunch, she stopped back by the crew mess. All evidence of the previous evening’s celebration had been cleared away. Brandon was there, floating next to a pretty brunette that she hadn’t met. The two of them were laughing. He saw her and winked.

For someone assigned to observe her inspection, he didn’t seem to care much what she did. She’d imagined that he would be following her around, checking things off on his tablet as she worked through items on her own. Instead, he acted like he was on vacation. Maybe that’s how he saw it, because he was confident in her abilities. He’d certainly said as much before the mission.

“Ah was hoping you’d come on by and pay me another visit,” Milo said.

The scarred crew chief floated behind the counter that divided off the rear of the crew mess. Next to him was one of several vertical bars spaced along behind the bar. They were quick, convenient grips. She’d seen Milo last night spinning gracefully from one to the next. His lack of legs actually seemed an advantage in the close quarters. And somehow he had managed to make a fantastic German chocolate cake with real coconut-pecan frosting. It had disappeared quickly.

She slip-walked on magnetic slippers over to the counter and grabbed the rail. She smiled at the chief. “That was a fantastic party last night, thank you.”

“Nah, thank you,” Milo said. “Everyone is happy you came. Finally, now we will get underway. It is very good.”

“I have to finish my inspection first.”

Milo laughed. “Of course! Come, come back here. Let me show you the galley. Finest kitchen off Earth. Come see.”

“Okay. I will.”

Using the rail as leverage, she pulled her feet free of the weak magnetic force and let her momentum carry her legs up over the counter. She let go as her trajectory carried her back over the counter. She was upside down with relation to Milo. He laughed and clapped.

Catching one of the vertical rails, she stopped drifting and tucked her legs in to rotate down and orientate herself to face Milo.

“Excellent, excellent! We’ll make a spacer of you before you leave!”

“I had training in zero-gee,” she said. “They make us spend six months working orbitals before they send us out.”

“Ah haven’t been back down the well in ten years,” Milo said. “Deep space, that’s home now.”

She glanced at his scars and when she raised her eyes she saw that he’d seen her looking. He held out an arm.

“Fire in space, you have seen this? Very dangerous. It moves like something alive and grabs you.”

Cate nodded. “I’ve seen video. And I read the reports. I know you saved three other people.”

“What else could be done? Seal the hatch, and they all die.”

It was what the regulations indicated in that situation. He hadn’t followed the regulations and lost his position with Interworld. StarMines picked up his contract, paid for medical care and rehabilitation.

“Now,” Milo said. “I’ll show you my kitchen. State of the art.”

🚀

Over the next week, Cate poked into every area of the ship. Kyle took her through the asteroid spotting systems, already one of dozens of StarMines ships working to map and identify potential targets for the next operation. No claims could be filed with A.R.M. until a ship was within 50 kilometers of the asteroid, matching its orbit. StarMines had big plans.

He also showed her the debris blanket that would stretch between the arms of the ship and out around AE-37489X like a giant drawstring bag. All of Tyler’s drones would work beneath that covering. Any fragments that broke free would remain contained within the debris blanket. He demonstrated its resistance to impact, being flexible and loose rather than pulled tight. In the final stages, as the asteroid was cut into ever smaller pieces that couldn’t be held by the arms, it would still contain the debris.

Airi Momoi took her through the Eureka’s environmental systems. All very nice, incorporating lots of biomass to recycle the atmosphere and water. Bonner’s air-adapted fish weren’t the only fish on board, though the others lived in flooded processing tubes and provided a source of fresh protein for the crew.

The longer she spent with the crew, the more she wished she was a part of the ship’s crew. They were a big family. Many looked forward to returning to Earth, their accounts much bigger for the two years that they had spent in space.

Through it all, she met with Brandon each day, short meetings. He looked at what she had done and told her to keep up the good work. Mostly he continued to act as if he was on vacation.

🚀

Cate’s throat tightened when she got out to the hatch and saw the chiefs lined up again, with Bonner at the far end. Brandon was behind her and she understood a lot better now why he was having such a great time visiting the Eureka. This was a great crew. Really nice, hardworking people. It could have been a negative experience, if they had resented her efforts to inspect the operation, and instead they had opened up to her.

She lifted up her tablet. “Thank you. Thank all of you, I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you made this such a wonderful experience.”

Milo started clapping, and soon everyone was clapping with him. She looked down the tube to where Bonner floated in the open hatch, much as he had when they first came aboard. The clapping subsided.

“I’ve already transmitted my findings to A.R.M. and to StarMines, authorizing your operation here.”

That brought out cheers and more clapping, and people pushed off the walls to drift to her. Airi reached her first. The hug was a surprise, but Cate happily returned the hug. Then Kyle, Tyler, each shaking her hand before moving on to Brandon. Milo came up and engulfed her in a huge bear hug.

“You must come back and visit me again,” he said. “Ah find a new rock for you.”

Kyle whistled and Cate blushed. Milo just laughed and reached out to clasp Brandon’s hand.

Then it was just Peter Bonner, smiling brightly as he floated in front of her, lightly touching a toe-grip to steady himself.

“Thank you,” he said. “I appreciate the work A.R.M. does. Milo’s right, we’ll look forward to seeing you again.”

“You’ll go back out after this?”

Bonner nodded. “I’m a spacer. It’s in my blood. Eventually, we’ll move on from harvesting resources for Earth and start setting up new colonies. I’ll take those missions. Who knows? Mars? Europa might be nice too.”

“It’s further than I plan to go, but I wish you luck, Captain.”

He smiled and moved on to say his goodbyes to Brandon. Cate propelled herself forward to the hatch. She stopped at the opening and turned herself around. The whole group of them, smiling, laughing, Brandon trying to pull himself free, that was the last time she saw any of them.

🚀

The commission’s chambers were cold, overly air-conditioned, and largely empty. No press. Cat sat at the witness table, resisting the urge to rub her clammy hands together. A glass of water sitting in front of her on the table with droplets forming on the glass. She’d tried one sip, but it was flat and oily. Nothing like the Axial water she’d had on the Eureka. It did nothing to clear her tacky mouth, it just made it worse.

In front of her, up on the stage, were the five members of the commission. Congress men and women looking down on her with grave expressions. Besides them, were two recorders, the agents waiting by the doors, and that was it. She didn’t have anyone with her. She was alone. Jobless now, stuck in the gravity well.

Senator Larson, a retired admiral gone into politics, asked the next question.

“Dr. Hadley, your report shows you did not test the capture material used to enclose the asteroid. Correct?”

Cate swallowed, tried to speak and shook her head. “No, Senator. I tested a sample of the material provided by Tyler Nice.” Neece, who was nice.

“But not the actual material used to enclose the asteroid, is that not correct?”

It was. “As I’ve said, I tested the provided sample. There was no reason to think it differed from the stored capture material.”

Senator Larson rubbed his sharp jaw. Penetrating eyes looked at her like a hawk. “And yet the material in question failed during orbital maneuvers, resulting in thousands of impacts from highly refined material raining down on the United States.”

Cate fought not to cry. She had told herself she wouldn’t cry. She would remain professional. She had seen the video. Each storage container of refined metals had plummeted to Earth. They were designed to reach the surface with a deployment package attached. When they ripped out of the capture envelope, they fell free through the atmosphere. The impacts hit a swath across Pennsylvania, causing the greatest damage and casualties in Greensburg. They didn’t explode so much as simply hit the ground and create a small crater. Damaging, but not harmful when they hit fields. But those that hit structures did blow the structures apart. The video of the demolished abbey played for weeks and was often the first one played when the incident was brought up now.

Senator Larson wasn’t done. “In addition to the loss of life and property on the ground, the failure subsequently damaged the Eureka to the point where it could no longer maintain orbit and was lost with all hands. Given the high risks, the enormous consequences, how can you believe that testing a sample, a sample which you didn’t even bother to confirm was the same material as the capture envelope, was sufficient?”

There it was. Her error. Her very human error. “Senators, there is not a second each day when I don’t grieve for those we lost. I met them. They were good, hard-working people trying to provide highly demanding resources in a very unforgiving environment. I trusted them, but I followed A.R.M. protocols in every detail during the inspection. Under those protocols, testing the sample was sufficient.”

Larson shook his head. “Sufficient. We’ve seen how sufficient your efforts were. Tests of the recovered capture material show it didn’t match the specifications of samples sent to the manufacturer. Yet StarMines and A.R.M. both failed to note the discrepancies.”

“With respect, Senator, I have not seen those reports, and can’t comment on their results.”

“Then let’s move on,” Larson said. “In your review of the personnel, Peter Bonner in particular, you indicated that he had free-swimming fish in his office?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yet you didn’t see this as a potential hazard? A distraction?”

Cate reached out and picked up the glass of water. She sipped and it was as flat, processed and oily as before. Water that had circulated through countless organisms and machines before she tasted it. Up there, she had floated free. Tasted water that no other living thing had tasted. She wished she could be back there, instead of here, but the Eureka was gone. She’d seen the videos of its fall, breaking apart in a fireball in the atmosphere. Was it her fault?

She’d been afraid of rocks falling out of space and had done everything she could to prevent that from happening but in the end, the very thing that she had tried to prevent had happened anyway.

Who else were they going to blame?

She put the glass down and answered the next question.

🚀

6,134 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 79th short story release, written in October 2013. This is one of those stories that is an exploration of ideas and characters. From the design of the ships, to other small details, the story explores some of the ideas I’d like to explore with near-future space exploration.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Next up is my story, Cat Lady.