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Companions

by Miriam English

6 - Star Fortunes

Friday

It was a little after 10pm and the last visitor had left the museum. Apart from the AIs and robots the museum was now empty. Usually it would remain that way until after daybreak. The museum never closed though, even after its human staff had left for the night. Imogen turned to the other two AIs at the reception area with her. "I'm going to take a little time for myself. Call me if I'm needed." The three of them smiled politely and bowed slightly to each other, and Imogen walked elegantly, unhurriedly through the 'Staff Only' door behind the reception desk, down the short aisle to a door with her name on it.

Her room was small, windowless, carpeted, and unfurnished except for shelves on two of the walls. The shelves contained all her possessions: some pieces of bark, leaves with all the surface decayed leaving the delicate tapestry of veins, small pieces of stone and colored broken glass, some colored marbles. These things she had found while strolling outside. Here, alone, in her room, surrounded with her things she was very happy. She knew she was one of the luckiest AIs in the world — she was able to help people while learning endlessly, and she had something most AIs never have: her own place and her own things in it.

She stood in the middle of her room and her mind leaped out onto the net. After that delightful little girl, Trixie, today had spoken with her about Star Fortunes she wanted to see if there were more episodes available for viewing. And there it was: another brand new episode, best of all it was one about Lenore and Rover, her ship.

Imogen fetched the episode and, with a childish giggle of anticipation, let it flood her senses, beginning with the brassy music.

Star Fortunes

The Continuing Adventures of Lenore and Rover

As the titles faded Imogen could see around her the familiar interior of Rover, the AI ship. Lenore, dressed in a gray coverall, was strapped into the pilot's seat.

Rover's soft adolescent male voice came from all around her, "Lenore, I'm suddenly reading a strong metallic signature in something just a few hundred kilometers nearly dead-ahead. It must have been in the radio shadow of a snowball before."

Imogen moved her point of view up closer to the front of the cabin so she could see the instruments.

Lenore looked at the readings. "Wow. That looks like it's a lot of metal. Try hailing it. Metal that pure could be a ship. Change course towards it please, Rover."

"No response from the hail."

Lenore frowned. "Maybe it's a derelict."

"Oh, I hope not. Those always have tragedy behind them."

"Or a raider."

Rover didn't answer that worrying possibility. He tried to increase magnification and clarity of the telescope."

Lenore exhaled with relief, "No. It looks like a rock... an enormous one."

"Wow, Lenore. I think we have hit the big one."

Lenore chuckled, keeping her excitement in check, "Let's not count our chickens."

But the image was becoming clearer with every passing second as they approached, and it was obvious it was a rock.

"I'm decelerating now and readying the grapplers."

Lenore looked up from the instrument panel and out the front viewscreen. She pointed, "I can see it."

Lenore's chair closed around her to bind her firmly in its spongy cushion. Imogen knew what was coming next.

There was a loud bang and the ship jolted as the grapplers were fired off ahead toward the rock to fasten around it. Now the rock appeared to zip past the ship (the ship was actually speeding past the rock) and the elastic grappler ropes stretched, slowing the ship at ferocious gee forces. Wrapped in the chair Lenore grunted with the heavy gees. Imogen saw her viewpoint whirl madly about as the ship changed direction.

At just the right moment Rover released the grapplers so that the ship was almost stationary with respect to the rock. The grapplers shot past the ship the other way as they were being reeled in.

Imogen's point of view was momentarily forced by the director to outside the little ship and she saw the grapplers like wild snakes whipping back and forth as they were being reeled in. And then her view was inside the cabin again.

The chair's straps released Lenore and Rover said, "This rock is heavy. It hardly moved."

Lenore floated out of her seat and back toward the suit and airlock. She rubbed her hands together. "Time for me to go out and find out what we have."

"Okay, I'm moving in close now."

Lenore looked over her shoulder while pulling the white, one-piece spacesuit onto her legs. The rock loomed large in the viewscreen. She pushed her head into the helmet and shrugged into the arms, then looking down at her front, pushed together the smooth, interleaved, electrostatic seals one by one, making sure they were perfectly clean — her life depended on them.

Rover said, "Oh, you're going to love this. My preliminary spectrographic tests on the scratches made by the grapplers indicate under the suface crud this rock is more than 99% pure nickel. Also it has a very strong magnetic field."

"Whaaat?!" she yelled, distorting the suit radio. Barely visible in the suit's helmet, Lenore's face showed joy. "Woo hoo! Big time, baby." She headed to the airlock, which was like an old-time ironing-board cupboard, just barely deep enough for Lenore to fit. The door slid closed behind Lenore. Imogene's view was alone inside the cabin as she listened to the radio and Lenore's breathing accompanied by the pops and creaks as Lenore's suit stretched with the air being evacuated from the airlock.

Under control from the director Imogen's viewpoint shifted to outside the 20 meter-long ship. It was dwarfed by the potato-shaped, light gray rock. In the starry blackness beyond the sun shone, quite a bit smaller than as seen from Earth, but still fierce. The airlock in the side of the ship opened suddenly and Lenore pushed away, toward the rock. Her safety line unreeled as she went.

Imogen's viewpoint moved closer to the area of the rock that Lenore was approaching. Imogen couldn't hear anything except Lenore's breathing over the radio. Even when Lenore reached the rock and used a magnet to hold onto the surface there was no noise except for the radio.

"The magnet holds tight." She pulled a small geologist's pick-hammer from her toolbelt and chipped away at the surface, silently, except for her breathing and slight grunts. After a little while she reached a shiny layer. "Oh my goodness. This looks pure!" She hammered away with the pick for a couple of minutes until she was able to raise a small edge of metal. She put the pick-hammer back on her belt detached a small sample container and pliers. Now she grasped the bit of metal with the pliers and, bracing herself against the rock with one arm and her two feet, she wiggled the sliver of metal back and forth til it broke, then she put it in the sample container. "Got it. Okay, I'm coming back in now."

The line pulled Lenore backwards to the ship.

Imogen's view returned to the cabin interior.

Soon the little airlock opened and Lenore floated backwards out into the cabin.

She left the suit on and detached safety line, then pushed toward the rear of the cabin and the small circular door to the rest of the little ship. She pulled herself through and went to the spectrometer. Now she opened the sample container, removed the small piece of metal, clamped it inside the spectrometer, and closed the cover. After a few seconds a bright light flared through the little window in the cover and Lenore looked at the main lab screen. She didn't really need to because Rover spoke up, "More than 99% pure nickel."

"Wow..." Lenore whispered, in awe.

"Okay, I'm transmitting your claim to Earth and the Miners' Co-op."

"Thanks Rover. I guess I need to get started cutting this up while you make us some gliders."

She floated back to the cabin, reattached the lifeline, went through the airlock again (Imogen's viewpoint followed) and pulled herself along the side of the ship to the tool cabinet. She opened it and took out a device which looked like a ridiculously long C-clamp that extended about two meters.

Imogen knew this was a monofilament cutter. Between the two ends of the C-shape was an almost invisible, single-molecule-thick filament, extremely strong and unreactive. Cold, it could slice through most things like an unimaginably sharp blade. When it was white-hot it could slice through rock. In other Star Fortunes episodes bad guys sometimes used them as an especially cruel weapon.

Lenore handled the device with great care, and floated with it over to the asteroid, which was just a few meters away now, as Rover had been easing slowly closer. She flicked a switch on the handle and the filament became visible as a bright white line. Now she set about cutting away the surface layer to reveal the metal underneath.

Imogen's view faded out to black and then faded in again — the customary indicator for the passage of time.

Lenore was standing on the surface using magnetic boots and had cut a large, shiny area about 5 meters square off the surface of the asteroid. The entire rock was about 100 meters by 100 meters by 120 meters, so this amounted to not much more than a scratch. Plates of metal, each a meter square by 10 centimeters thick were stacked nearby. She said, "This magnetic field in the rock is convenient. I don't have to waste time securing the cuttings. They just stick here." She laughed.

Rover's said, "Ummm... perhaps it's not so convenient. I've been tracking another asteroid. I didn't see it at first because it was obscured by this one. It is almost a twin to this one, a little smaller, but still enormous. It too, would seem to be made of nickel, and has a strong magnetic field. I think they must have been orbiting one another at a small distance, but when we grappled this one we disturbed its motion. They're now moving toward each other."

"How much time do you estimate?"

"We have maybe ten minutes until they collide. They're moving slowly, but the impact will still be enough to rattle your teeth loose. I recommend we not be connected with this one when they do."

"Understatement." Lenore chuckled. "Okay, I'll secure onboard what I've cut and we'll move away to a safe distance."

Seconds later... "Uh, Lenore? We have another problem. The loose dust and gravel and stuff that covers the surface, it seems to be mostly low grade nickle and iron ore held here by the magnetism of the asteroid and I've just noticed it has been building up inside the exhaust nozzles. Unless it's cleared away I can't lift off from the surface of the rock. And the magnetic field also seems to be holding us stuck to the surface. I don't have many ferro-magnetic parts, but those I do have are keeping us here... at least until I can get the exhausts cleared."

"Oh jeez. Let me have a look at it." She walked across the surface to the exhausts on the rear of the ship and looked inside. It was quite clogged with dust and small rocks. She reached in and pulled a handful out, raising a cloud of stuff, but more moved past her hand to replace what she shifted. "This isn't good. It seems to be sticking to the inside of the nozzles by magnetic and possibly electrostatic attraction. I need to think about this. Is there some way to give low pressure bursts through the nozzles so that they can be cleared without risking backfire?"

"My lowest pressure blasts would still risk exploding the motors. They're designed for low mass, high velocity. We need high mass, low velocity to clean them out."

"--and some kind of flap to stop this crap coming in again. Can we use the water from the radiation shield to flood the tubes?"

"Yes. We'd need to vaporise it in order to blow it out the nozzles with enough force."

"Would the vacuum do that?"

"Not fast enough, I think. Better would be methane ice.

"Any nearby?"

"A snowball about 100km away. There's not enough time for you to jetpack there and back, let alone work out a way to use it to flush the tubes. I think we need to concentrate on the other asteroid and some way to deflect it."

They were both silent for a little while.

Lenore asked, "Is the magnetic field on this rock aligned in one direction or does it have many directions?"

"It's aligned. Our position is very close to the south pole."

"How about the other rock? Aligned?"

"It's hard to tell, but yes, it appears to be a single direction too."

"What's their relative motion?"

"Our asteroid is rotating slowly relative to the other one. The other doesn't look like it's rotating at all relative to us. The two asteroids are closing together very slowly — about 80 meters per second. Still, that's enough to destroy us both. It's like running into a wall at nearly 150kmph."

Imogen guessed that this description had been added to the story so that viewers could relate. A space ship wouldn't think of vehicles on Earth.

Lenore said, "I think I've got an idea. Can you locate the south pole of the other asteroid?"

"Yes. It's pointing almost towards this rock."

"Okay! Do you think we can fire half the grapplers around our rock to fix us to this one, and half the grapplers to the other rock slow our rotation?"

"Yes, I can. I think I see what you're intending. The same poles of a magnet repel. You want to slow their approach speed. But my measurements show it wouldn't be enough. We would be squashed like bugs between the two."

"No, I wasn't thinking that. I'm hoping we can use the grapplers to time the rotation of our rock so that they collide a little past us. So it detaches us from this one."

"Why are you interested in the poles?"

"Well, I'm also hoping you can arrange it so the south pole of the other asteroid gets stuck to the north pole of this one so we don't have to contend with two rocks dancing around each other."

"The magnetism isn't strong enough. They'll crash, melting at the interface. Then, depending on how quickly the heat is conducted away they may become stuck together. If it doesn't solidify fast enough they'll probably rebound, flinging molten metal in all directions. In that case we could be in big trouble... umm, bigger trouble."

"The trick is going to be working out the rotation rates and how the grapplers might alter them. Do you think you can do it, Rover?"

"I'll have to." His voice was glum.

Lenore started gathering up her equipment and stored it in the tool cabinet, then started moving the slabs of metal she'd cut out of the asteroid. They had tremendous inertia, but floated easily enough, even with their tendency to drift back down to the surface under magnetic pull. She stowed them, one by one, in the small cargo hold, locking them down securely. "The more inertia we have then the more chance of pulling free from this rock. All this metal must weigh almost as much as you do Rover."

With everything safely away, Lenore strode to the airlock.

Imogen's viewpoint switched to inside the cabin in time to see Lenore emerge from the airlock.

"Keep your suit on. This going to be rough and if a piece of debris pierces the hull we could depressurise before I can mend it."

Lenore took the magnetic boots off and stashed them inside a locker. It wouldn't be good to have loose things flying around in here. Now she went and sat in the pilot's chair which enfolded her again. "I don't have anything to hold my head still inside this helmet. I hope I don't get a bad case of whiplash out of this."

Rover said, "Firing the first grapplers."

Imogen's view switched to outside the ship about 200 meters away. Without noise, half the grapplers flew away in a wide arc around the asteroid the ship was on. They attached on the far side then reeled in to hold the ship tight against the surface.

The radio voice of Rover said, "Firing the second grapplers."

Several more long cables silently shot away into the darkness. Then they went taut.

Imogen's view returned to the cabin, where she could hear the rotors whining loudly reeling in the grapplers at 80 meters per second to keep pace with the approaching rock. The ship groaned and creaked, being pulled between the two asteroids, slowing the roation of the one they were on.

"Done." Rover's voice said, and there was a loud bang as the tension on all the grapplers was released and they were wound back into the ship. There were secondary impacts as the grapplers snapped back and forth like spaghetti being sucked into a child's mouth. Finally all was quiet, except for Lenore's breathing in her suit radio.

In his gentle voice, Rover said, softly, "Three... two... one..."

There was a loud scraping sound and the asteroid disappeared from the view through the front viewport. And suddenly what sounded like the worst hailstorm ever for a few seconds, then quiet.

Rover said, "We're okay. Neither the inner nor the outer hull was breached. We're intact."

Lenore's chair unwrapped her and she floated to the viewscreen. "Did the rocks fuse or bounce?"

"See for yourself." He chuckled.

The view was replaced by that of a great dumbell receding into the dark.

"Yes! I guess I'd better clean out the tubes so we can chase after it."

"Now we're away from that magnetic field that'll be much easier. If you heat up some water and pipe it into the tubes that should blow out as vapor with enough force to expell it. It won't cling as much anymore."

Lenore opened the front of her suit and started taking it off.

Rover said with an odd note in his voice, "Now you're going to be rich enough to retire on Earth."

Lenore didn't answer for a moment. "You know, I was thinking... I might donate this fortune to charity and see if I can find another one. I mean, what would I do on Earth without my pal Rover anyway?"

"You're crazy." He laughed.

Imogene's view faded to black and the credits rolled.

She found herself grinning with enjoyment as the credits ended and she could see her walls again. "Corny ending," she chuckled to herself, "but fun."

She heaved a big, shuddering sigh of pure happiness and looked around her quiet little room with its shelves of collected bits and pieces. "What a truly wonderful life I have!"

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