Snippet

I am not at terribly fast writer as such things go.  One way I work with that is to have several projects going at once.  Each project goes a bit slower than it would if I were doing it alone but I produce more in total than I would otherwise..  Here’s a snippet from one of my current projects.  It’s tentatively set in my FTI Universe.


The airlock door slid open.  Tom Bardeau, captain and owner of the asteroid harvester Bardeau’s Bard, popped his helmet and drew in a deep breath of the air in Amphitrite station.  After eight months in the ship that also served as his family’s home the air smelled sweet and fresh.

“Hey, Da,” Tom’s oldest, Andrea said. “Can I. . . .”

“Go.  Go,” Tom said.

Andrea grinned and pushed off from the wall.  Tom watched as she sailed across the concourse.  She used a short burst from her wrist and ankle jets to duck a trolley then caromed off a push pole before disappearing into the distance, headed for the station clinic to complete the practical portion of midwife training.  A bittersweet smile caressed his face.  All too soon, she would be leaving, not for classes between trips to the deep but with a husband.

His headset beeped, announcing that it had negotiated protocol with the local network.

He scowled as his preset program ran and a string of numbers appeared in the holocrystal in front of his left eye.  He read the final tally of his local account.  That wasn’t right.

Tom turned to his wife, Merinda, “I’ve got to go to the claims office.  I think there’s been a problem.”

Merinda snagged Brendan, their youngest, before he could push away from the wall and began to strip him out of his suit. “Should I oversea resupply then?”

Tom started to concur then stopped.  The final tally of their account balance still floated in the holocrystal. “Better wait on that.  Until I get this cleared up, we’d better not spend any more than we have to.”

Merinda’s eyes glazed in the expression Tom knew meant she was reading her own display. “I see.  Then I’ll get the kids settled in temporary quarters.”

Tom nodded.

Merinda pursed her lips, “Still, there’s that engineering practicum….”

Tom sighed. “Do as you think best.” He tapped the holocrystal. “But….”

Merinda nodded. “Of cou—Tanith, stop that!—Of course.”

#

“What do you mean nothing has come in?” Tom Bardeau floated upside down in front of the claims office desk at Amphitrite Station. “I sent down three heavies.”

“I can’t speak to that,” the woman, her nametag said ‘[Guðrún]Steinsson”, said. “But nothing with your beacon has passed into our zone, nothing but the one you rode in with.”

Bardeau bit down on his anger.  He touched one of the palm switches controlling the air jets he wore at waist, wrist, and ankles, releasing a burst of compressed air to adjust his position. “Three asteroids.  Thirty meter class.  At least 35 parts per million platinum.”

“Maybe, but they haven’t arrived here.”

Tom scowled.  The occasional loss happened.  A beacon failed.  A rock sailed past the collection zone without being marked for pickup.  Or a navigation error put the rock into the wrong orbit and it never came near a collection station.  Three, however, was too much to credit.

Another burst of air to adjust position then Tom drummed the fingers of his right hand on his thigh and looked at Steinnson.  Station personnel cheating wranglers out of the proceeds from their rocks had happened.  The Aurora scandal had been the big one involving half Aurora station’s personnel and hundreds of tons of platinum value before being squashed.  That one had involved shorting the tonnage of processed asteroids, not crediting wranglers with the full value of their rocks.

Making complete rocks just disappear, though?

Steinnson shifted her eyes, unwilling to continue meeting Tom’s glare.

“You’re not the only one with missing rocks,” she said. “I don’t think anybody else has lost three, but the numbers of losses seem to be up.”

“All right,”

With quick eye motions, Tom activated his headset and flipped through menus to the comm function.  His second oldest, Aaron, had shop watch.

“What you need, Dad?”

“I want you to go through our beacons, every single one.  Pull every board and examine them under the microscope.  Anything, anything at all that isn’t right, you let me know.”

“Uh…Dad?”

Tom sighed. “I know.  I know.  You need your down time too.  We’ll take this in turns.  But they never recorded our rocks arrival.  If we got a bad batch of beacons, we need to know it.”

Aaron hesitated a long time before responding.  He knew what three missing rocks meant to the family as much as Tom did. “Okay, Dad.  I’ll get on it.”

Tom switched off the comm and turned back to Steinnson. “Thank you for your time.

She spread her hands. “Sorry I can’t help you.”

As Tom left the office he checked his account balance once again.  He had enough to outfit for another trip out.  One.  But another disaster like this would break him.

#

Maintaining an asteroid harvester was an expensive proposition.  They were not large enough for bioregenerative life support so.  They could recycle water.  Electrochemical systems could recover oxygen from carbon dioxide, but they still needed reserves against losses and supplies of food.

The biggest expense was propellant, reaction mass for the ion thrusters and storable hypergolic fuels for the high thrust maneuvering jets and the small attitude control jets.

Not just money was needed, but time.  Life support systems to be scrubbed out.  Recovered volatiles sold back to the station.  Every system checked to ensure it was up to spec before they headed back out into the belt looking for more likely rocks.

Normally the process took two weeks.  In order to conserve funds, Tom had lowered the priority of his work orders, ordered several jobs on a “space available” basis rather than hiring a slot.  He put off buying fuel, keeping a sharp eye on prices and hoping for a drop before he absolutely had to load up.  The estimate was four weeks before they would be ready to go out again.  The extra rooming costs would eat up part of the savings, but they could spend part of that time back on the ship.

Tom completed his quick check of ship status and twitched his eye in the pattern that switched off the holocrystal display.

“I’m sorry, Sandu.” Tom sipped from his bulb, a peaty scotch.  Where had Sandu obtained that? “I got a bit antsy and checked on the ship.  You were saying?”

Sandu Sala laughed.  The captain of the harvester Kristo–or, as Tom had come to learn, former captain, had developed a bit of a paunch.  When he had learned that Tom was in station he had invited him to lunch at his quarters.

“Believe me, I understand,” Sandu said. “Back when I had the Kristo, I couldn’t go five minutes without checking on her progress while in station.”

“Speaking of that,” Tom snagged a French fry out of the container on his meal tray. “What happened?  I would never have thought you’d give up wrangling.”

“I didn’t.” Sandu scooped up a bit of casserole and, with a deft movement, transfered it to his mouth without a crumb escaping in the low gravity.  He swallowed. “Costs were eating me alive.  I took a loss three outings in a row.  You know how that goes.”

“I do indeed.” Tom nodded.  Every trip was a gamble.  When you went out, using a low powered ion drive, you swept section of the belt.  The goal was to find rocks dense with heavy metals, neither too big nor too small.  Too big and you would not be able to shift them into an orbit for one of the catch stations.  Too small and they just weren’t worth the time.  Divert the asteroid.  Slap on your identity beacon.  And collect your paycheck the next time you touch at a station.

There were millions of asteroids in that range of sizes, but scattered over such an enormous volume of space finding them, even with modern equipment, involved a certain amount of luck.

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