Marcus locks his spacecraft in orbit around Asteroid 98308 and begins the loading bay sequence to deploy the autonomous robot mining rigs. All the system checks have passed, and Marcus transmits the notification to his fleet commander that he and his partner will begin the deployment countdown sequence. The first surveyor lands on the predesignated location of 98308 and begins detailed monitoring of the rotation of the asteroid and taking samples.
Marcus analyzes the data, which indicate massive gold formations at the location. He transmits his findings back to the fleet commander that he’s going to begin the sequence to create the first mining rig landing location.
“Go ahead and launch the first rig, John.”
John is stationed on the other side of the spacecraft from Marcus. “Confirmed data, beginning sequence to launch first rig.”
One by one, the 12 surveyors are launched and perform their tasks without issue and transmit the data back to Marcus. Only 3 of the locations show signs of precious metals, but the quantity of the metal is well worth the effort. Marcus has John initiate the retrieval sequence of the 12 surveyors, and each of them return back to the loading bay without issue and with minimal effect on 98308’s very slow rotation.
Marcus’ ship finally moves into the direct line of sight communication with his fleet commander, and their ships create an automatic laser communication connection. The video link shows the fleet commander and medic on Marcus’s screen, and they begin to check-in on him while another medic checks in with John.
“How’s it going out there Marcus? How’s she handling?” The fleet commander asks Marcus.
“Steady, ma’am. This is the most solid ship I’ve been on yet! I’m really impressed.”
The medic asks Marcus some questions about his mental state and how he has handled the 17 day trip with John. Marcus mentions that it’s been a good trip, and that he’s been very comfortable the entire time.
“Remember, Marcus,” The Commander starts off, “When you go into Earth’s shadow, it’s going to be a solid 115 minutes of testing of that ship’s life support and navigation systems, but you’re going to be on your own for pretty much the entire time. We’re deploying the haulers. They will intercept your trajectory in about 15 days, which gives the mining rigs plenty of time to strip that rock!”
“Yes, ma’am. This is what we trained for. We have checked and rechecked each of the systems. Everything is working exactly as it should. This is a well built machine! Mining rigs are going full speed ahead, and everything is reporting back in perfect condition. We could not have timed this any better!”
They finish discussing the mission, and then the commander transmits a message they received from Marcus’ wife and children. Marcus watches the video with a big smile and then records a video of his own to have the fleet commander send back to Earth while he’s out of communication. John also receives a message from his family.
The ship goes out of direct line-of-sight communication with the fleet commander. John calls Marcus via the in ship video communication channel.
“Marcus, I really appreciate you vouching for me for this position. This is going to change my family’s lives! I can’t thank you enough for believing in me. My family thanks you as well.”
Marcus chokes up but holds it back. “John, you’re like my little brother. We’ve known each other for how many years now? Heck, you were my wing man when I met my wife! I wouldn’t have the life I have without you by my side. I couldn’t imagine being on this mission with anyone else. We’re going back to Earth as billionaires!”
They smile at each other and give each other a thumbs up and prepare for the shadow transit.
30 minutes into the shadow transit Marcus receives a notification from the system monitoring the rotation of 98308 that an anomaly has been detected in the asteroid’s speed of rotation. Marcus evaluates the data as it’s coming in, and comes to the conclusion that passing through Earth’s shadow causes the rotation of 98308 to speed up by a considerably measurable amount. He logs the information into the tracking software and records a video of him stating the findings.
Another 50 minutes into the shadow transit and Marcus feels a massive shake in the ship. The hull monitoring system begins flashing a notification that the hull has been breached and the automatic recovery system has failed to seal the hull in Bay Module A. Marcus calls John on the video system and goes pale. He vomits inside his helmet as he sees John’s lifeless body strapped into his station with a golf ball-sized hole right through the middle of John’s helmet. John’s helmet is filled with frozen blood like an aquarium with one of John’s eyes pressed up against the left side of the helmet and the other sticking out of the other side of the helmet where the projectile exited.
Marcus’ hand is shaking as he closes the communication channel and removes his helmet. It’s considerably colder than it was previously, and the system monitoring the air temperature is starting to warn him that temperature in his command module is dropping quickly and will be unsafe for anyone without a suit within 30 seconds. He heads over to the closet, opens the door and pulls out the helmet from his spare suit in the closet. He cleans up his suit as much as possible and puts on his helmet and seals it. He then places his vomit filled helmet in the closet and closes the closet.
He heads back over to his command chair and secures himself. He looks at the clock to see how much more time is left in the Shadow. 30 minutes. He looks at the pitch of the ship and notices that it’s still increasing at an accelerating rate.
He records a brief video update, “The ship has been stuck by a golf ball-sized object that has penetrated the hull and killed my partner. Repeat, my partner John Ellis is dead. The hull is breached and the automatic sealing has been unable to reseal Bay Module A. The ship is appearing to head into a spiral. The recommended action is to release the damaged module of the ship to help correct the trajectory.”
Marcus calmly performs the sequence of commands to jettison the module where John’s body is. The system confirms that the release of that module will be possible inside of a three minute window, but it might not stop the leak unless Marcus also releases the adjacent cargo bay that was also damaged by the projectile.
Marcus starts talking to himself as he’s going through the data. “Okay. If I hold on to everything, I’m going to spiral and lose total control of the ship in approximately 14 minutes and lose all life support within 1 week. If I release John’s module but not the adjacent cargo bay, The ship will be able to correct the spiral, but I’m still going to lose life support in 10 days. I can figure out something in 10 days!”
He closes his eyes and thinks about all the good times he had with John. Tears begin forming in his eyes as he opens them and then presses the button to release the module with John. He drops his head and lets out a deep sigh.
Marcus sends out an SOS signal in hopes that it will reach the haulers in time for them to speed up their arrival and get to him in time. The ship’s navigation system has begun correcting for the damage to Bay Module A, but calculations are showing that it’s catching just enough solar wind that he’ll need to refuel the pitch correction module every 3 hours in order to allow the navigation system to continue to make the corrections needed to keep him in orbit around the asteroid. If he breaks orbit, he’ll never be found.
He spends the next 48 hours combing through manuals and every scenario he can come up with that will give him the best chance of survival without having to jettison any equipment in the damaged Bay Module A. Marcus realizes that he needs to get some sleep in order to keep his mind sharp. He secures himself in his bed and closes his eyes. Within seconds of falling asleep, he opens his eyes, “That’s it!”.
Marcus unstraps himself from his bed, puts his helmet back on, and pulls himself as quick as possible through the ship to the entrance to the damaged Bay Module A. He pauses, realizing that he might be making a delirious decision that’s deadly dangerous. He slows his breathing and makes his way back to his command module where he sits down and meditates.
As Marcus opens his eyes from meditation, he hears a crackle from the inbound receiver. He stares at the receiver as if he can hear with his eyes. A few minutes later he hears another crackle with a faint voice.
“What are the odds there’s someone else out here?” Marcus says to himself. “You’re hearing things, pal. Get back to bed.”
Marcus waits in front of the receiver a bit longer. There are no more crackles. He pulls himself back over to his bed, straps himself in, lets out a deep breath, and then falls into a deep sleep.
Marcus wakes from his sleep, feeling well rested. He goes over his calculations again and confirms that his plan will work. He pulls himself through to the ship to the Bay Module A entrance again. He double checks his suit, helmet, and harness buckle. He begins to depressurize the module he’s in so that he can start unlocking the door to the damaged Bay Module A. Once depressurized, he initiates the sequence to open the doors.
As the doors open, the system notifies him that there is a stability issue with the connection between his module and Bay Module A. The damage to Bay Module A is much worse than he was able to see through the porthole. Most of the back end of the module has been ripped off of the module. He sets out to execute his plan.
Using straps, Marcus secures the first mining rig near the door to Bay Module B. He double checks that Bay Module B is not pressurized and initiates the door unlock sequence. He moves the mining rig into Bay Module B and secures it with the straps. He closes the doors between Bay Module A and B and then goes back out of Bay Module A so that he can go refuel the pitch correction system.
One by one, Marcus methodically moves each mining rig from the damaged Bay Module A to Bay Module B, and then checks the pitch correction system to make sure that it has enough fuel. Every three mining rigs, he has to recharge his oxygen. Slowly but surely, Marcus has moved each of the mining rigs from the damaged Bay Module A into Bay Module B and secured them.
He goes back into this command module and runs through a series of simulations to make sure he can jettison the now empty damaged Bay Module A without causing any problems with this orbit. He figures out the sequence that will work best and programs it’s execution into the module management and navigation systems.
The module management system confirms the simulation outcome! Marcus begins the countdown sequence to execute the module jettison plan. Everything goes off without a hitch, and the navigation system makes the corrections needed to keep orbit around 98308! Marcus sits back in his command chair, straps himself in, and breathes a sigh of relief.
There’s another crackle on the inbound receiver, and Marcus jumps up in his chair from falling asleep. “Definitely not just hearing things, pal. Someone is nearby!” Marcus says to himself. “Let’s hope they are in my path!” Marcus is excited about the thought of rescue!
Another crackle comes in on the receiver, this time it is much clearer. “98308, we have received your distress signal. We are in your path and can provide assistance. We are transmitting our intercept plan on encoding 34871 dash Alpha Sigma Tango. Please confirm intercept plan on encoding 34871 dash Alpha Sigma Tango.”
Marcus pulls in the data communication and analyzes the plan. They will be able to intercept him in 2 days! Marcus communicates back to the other ship that he has confirmed the data received and is thankful for their help.
“I’m just relieved that you guys were here to save my ass!” Marcus exclaims to the captain of his rescue vessel.
Captain Williams smiles, “Hey, we may work for competing mining companies, but I’ll never let that stop me or any of my men from being good human beings.”
Marcus floats around introducing himself to the other 11 men standing on board Captain Williams’ ship, shaking each of their hands. A couple of the men seem a bit shady, but Marcus keeps his poker face of appreciation for their help.
“Epher, get this man a pair of boots?” Captain Williams orders. “How long until you rendezvous with your haulers, Marcus?” Captain Williams asks.
“Should be 11 to 12 days, sir. Line of sight communication within about 3 days.”
“You’re welcome to stay aboard with us. Or if you’d like to go risk it back on your ship over the next 12 days…” Captain Williams gestures with open palms, “The choice is yours. Per Space Ordinance 85, we’ll supply you with any rations you need to survive, and we’ll stay in orbit with you until your fleet haulers arrive.”
Epher comes back in with a pair of boots and helps Marcus into them so that he can now securely stand in the room with the others.
Marcus looks at the group of men and looks back to Captain Williams. “Since it’s all the same, Captain, I’ll head back to my ship with the rations you feel are fair.”
Captain Williams places his hands on his hips and smiles, “True loyalty is hard to come by, Marcus. I sure hope Miller Mining recognizes your dedication to them. If that’s ever not the case, I want you to get in contact with me directly.”
The two walk side by side as Captain Williams places his arm around Marcus’ shoulder and walks hims out of the room. “Before you leave, I want to show you something.” Captain Williams says to Marcus.
Marcus and Captain Williams walk into a massive observation deck with multiple telescopes and a long thin portal that stretches across the entire width of the room. Marcus can see his ship off in the distance, and his jaw drops as Captain Williams hands him a large stack of cash.
“Look, kid. I know they don’t pay you shit at Miller. They’re going to give you what? 10% of the draw? Maybe 12, if you’re lucky. You risked your ass, and your best friend is dead.” Captain Williams starts.
Marcus interrupts, “This is a big rock, sir. I’m going back a billionaire.” He smiles big.
Captain Williams smiles back. “Look, I don’t want to burst your bubble, kid. Space Ordinance 85 also means that we get to keep half your haul because we rescued you. We’re missing our own asteroid deadline, and it was a big one! We don’t know for sure what the take would be on that one, but the laws are the laws. And they are good laws, son. They saved your ass.”
“I thought you said you did it because it’s the right thing to do.”
“It’s a win-win, kid. Making money is the right thing to do. That’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and now you’ve learned it. Why do you think I’m flying around in the latest Xavier crafts while you’re flying around in that rinky dink death trap?”
“Hey, that bucket of bolts held together rather well considering what we were hit by.”
“That bucket of bolts is still around because of your resourcefulness, kid! It’s YOU that saved that ship. Not the other way around.” Captain Williams pauses as he lets Marcus reflect on what he just said.
Marcus is upset that he’s going to be going home with half the haul he planned on. He’s thinking about how it’s not going to be enough to cover all his bills from 10 years like he had planned.
Captain Williams points over to the far side of the room where there’s a large dent on the side of the wall. “You see that dent? That’s from a rock the same size as what hit your ship and nearly killed you, if not for your ingenuity and dedication, son.”
Marcus looks at the dent and is in awe of how the ship withstood the projectile. “That’s impressive, sir, but Miller has the best surveying platform in the solar system. It’s a million times better than what you’re using from Xavier, and you know that.”
“Listen, kid. I can see your heart. I can see your potential. If I had just 5 men like you, instead of these clowns on my ship right now, I’d be hauling 100 times what I am now. I know a great opportunity when I see one. And you, Marcus! You are a great opportunity. And this is a great opportunity for you too!”
Marcus’ face shifts from skeptical to intrigued. “What are we talking about here?”
“Before we go any further, I have one question for you.”
“What’s that, Cap?”
“Would 1 billion a month, that’s with a b, Marcus…”
“Yes, per month, and it gets even better, kid.”
Marcus smiles thinking about how 1 billion is 100 times what he’s making already. “I’m not sure how you can get better than 1 billion per month, but I’m all ears!”
“You get to stay at home with your wife and kids. No more space cowboy bullshit.” Captain Williams places his left hand on Marcus’ right shoulder.
Marcus looks at Captain Williams with contempt, “You think I’m stupid?” He shrugs off Captain Williams’ hand from his shoulder and turns away from him. “You think I’m some chump? You come save my ass, and you think I’m going to pull some bullshit espionage on my employer because you throw a billion in my face!”
Captain Williams smiles at Marcus. “A billion a month! For the rest of your life! You’re a good man. You deserve to be living in a luxury home with your beautiful wife and children rather than floating around in space as a frozen pop like your best friend.”
Marcus turns to Captain Williams in a rage and raises his fist. He pauses as he looks at Captain Williams who’s still smiling. “You’re not even worth it. Trying to take advantage of me like this. You’re a sick man.” He shoves the stack of cash into Captain Williams. “Take your blood money to some other sucker.”
Captain Williams looks Marcus in the eyes, “10 billion a month?”
“Deal with the devil.” Marcus’ pupils dilate, and Captain Williams knows he’s got him. Marcus looks down and then back to Captain Williams. “What do you need me to do? Blow up my ship?”
Captain Williams smirks, “Don’t be so silly, Marcus.” He pulls a black device out from the middle of the cash and hands it to Marcus. “Now, listen very careful to every word I’m about to tell you. Don’t say anything until the end, and don’t expect me to answer any questions. I have no answers.”
Marcus folds his arms in front of him and listens intently to everything Captain Williams says.
“When you get back to your fleet, they are going to take you in for debrief on the main carrier. You seem like a smart computer guy. Login with your friend’s credentials. You have the next 11 days to figure that part out. Plug in that device for one minute and then remove it and destroy it. How you do that is entirely up to you. Keep your story straight and your mouth shut about this conversation.”
Marcus interrupts, “They’re going to know it’s me, if I hack John’s account.”
Captain Williams becomes irritated, “That’s your one and only chance to not shut up and listen!” He continues calmly, “They are required by Space Ordinance 85 to send you back to Earth immediately. That will happen before they know anything. You WILL be arrested when you land on Earth. Call nobody but your wife, and explain that there is a mix up you will sort out. Three days after you arrive, you will receive a visitor. You will not know his name.”
Captain Williams pauses between each word, “I. Do. Not. Know. His. Name”, and then continues, “You will follow every direction he gives you without exception. Then you and your beautiful family live happily ever after so long as you keep your mouth shut and your nerves as steel.”
Marcus keeps looking into Captain Williams’ eyes. “This is the real deal, isn’t it?”
“You bet your ass, son.” Captain Williams says in such a calm manner that it sends chills down Marcus’ spine.
Marcus is heading back to his ship on the shuttle navigated by Epher. As they approach his ship, the image of John’s helmet flashes in his mind. He blinks repeatedly as if to remove that image from his mind’s eye. He looks at his ship and how odd it looks with the two jettisoned modules. The truth becomes apparent. He looks down at the black device in his hand and thinks to himself, “You just sold your soul to the devil.”