SHORTS: short stories by P.L. Sullivan
Aside from his first published book - Bound - and working on the next book in the Bound Keld series, Pat also writes occasional short stories. This is where you'll find them!
Read on, for more…
…is a short story that takes place within the Bound universe, despite all appearances.
I wrote it a number of years ago when thinking about other branches to the Bound story.
I hope you enjoy it…
A flashing yellow light on his drill-head control panel snagged Marc’s attention. Shit. Bit face temperatures were rising fast, past ‑75C already. Mud flow rate was climbing. He dialed back the drill rpms, pushed up the mud flow rate, and prayed for the bit face-temperature to fall back where it belonged. Another patch of crummy porous ice served up to him by Titan.
“Tanaka, this is Marc. Come in Tanaka.”
“Hi Marc, what’s up? I hope you’ve got good news.”
“Sorry. It’s what’s down that’s got me worried. Mud pressure fell again. I keep hitting rotten ice. Have you ever drilled more than four bad patches in a single hole?”
“Never. Two’s my personal best. Are you going to make it? You’re the only chance we have left.” Tanaka’s image showed him seated in the control cab of his own drill platform. His straight black hair was pulled back in a long ponytail. Much less distracting now compared to when he left it loose to waft around in the low gravity.
“I’m still on track. This ice, it’s incredible. I’m at five bad patches now. Sampson’s been on me after each one. He actually thinks he knows what he’s doing. If I’d been using one of his drilling profiles I’d have enough liquid water coming off overheated cutters to not only glaze over the cutters but freeze the whole drill string solid.”
“Why Marc. I’m amazed. You don’t think pumping liquid water into the shaft when your drill string’s at -140C is bad?”
“Maybe a little.”
Marc looked at his left monitor displaying the ripples of frozen hydrocarbon sand stretching away to the crater’s edge. The narrow slot window of six inch thick silicate didn’t do anything for dispelling the sense of confinement that crept up on him in the cab. Leaving at least one of the monitors in the driver’s enhanced vision mode kept him in touch with the real world outside.
“I generally like my water in solid chips, riding politely up in that nice liquid methane mud I’ve provided just for that purpose.”
“Suit yourself, Marc. Then again, I hear Sampson froze two strings solid his way.”
Sampson thought Marc’s doctorate in geology and six years at Sandia Labs didn’t count for squat. Sampson’s thirty years of hard rock drilling with EurAmco made him a self pronounced expert at drilling ammonia-rich cryogenic ice. Good luck with that.
“Mud pressure’s going back up, face temperature’s going back down.” The flashing yellow went back to green. He dialed up both the drill rpms and the weight-on-bit back to where he thought it was safe to run, and the rate of penetration went back up nicely--thirty percent higher than Sampson would ever approve. He could still make it. Twenty four hours and he should hit the meteorite. Forty eight hours left before they ‘coptered in to pick him up.
“You still don’t buy my little green men theory?” said Tanaka.
Marc made a face. “You mean those little green men no one ever found on Mars? Or the ones who were so smart they settled on frozen-solid Titan instead of nice warm Earth? And they were so smart they stole all the meteorites from Titan before we could get to them? No, I’m not buying today. Marvin the Martian, he never knew what he was up against in Bugs Bunny. But here? I don’t feel ready to play a star like Bugs.”
“One second, Tanaka. Here’s my call from Sampson.” Marc switched comms channels.
“Durand, you awake out there? Runnin one o’ your science experiments with my fifty million credit rig?” Sampson’s beefy face and unruly white hair filled the monitor screen.
“No, Mr. Sampson,” said Marc. “Everything’s in the green.”
“We saw yellow back here, Durand. I don’t want any yellows. Yellow tells me I better get ready to order a new bit. Maybe a whole drill string. You think I should order up a drill string, Durand?”
“No sir, Mr. Sampson.”
“Well that’s a good thing, Durand. We ain’t gonna get another drill string. We ain’t gonna get another drill bit. This whole damn project’s gonna get rolled up and all of us shipped home if we don’t hit ore pretty damn sure soon.”
“Yes, sir. I understand. I appreciate this last chance to drill into the anomaly. I’m confident—“
“Whatever. You be packed and ready to go in two days. Drill string up, platform ready to move out. Garcia’s gonna take over and drive that rig to the mountains where we shoulda gone all along.” The transmission ended and the monitor displayed ‘end of message’.
He toggled the comms set back to Tanaka’s channel. “I’m back. Seriously, Tanaka. It’s world-class rotten ice drilling here. I couldn’t make the ice any worse if I’d designed it that way. I nearly lost the whole platform to an ammonia-water geyser last week. I must have drilled straight into some fracture that was open down to the depths. No way there’s liquid water this close to the surface.”
“Sampson must love you.”
“Yeah. We’re great pals.”
“You weren’t gone long enough for his Evil Lunar Mining Consortium Speech.”
“Got it last time. And time before that. Those poor devils are bleeding money out every bodily orifice fighting the dust. Sampson says they’re our enemy. The dust is all the enemy they need. It’s abrasive, penetrating, and omnipresent. Door seals, wheel joints, antenna pivots—anything that has to move has to beat the dust. We’ve got it easy here.”
“Don’t forget the great yields Lunar Mining has,” said Tanaka. “Trying to cook .01 part per million He-3 out of a zillion tons of dust doesn’t sound like such a smart idea.”
“Agreed. I think they’re no competition for Saturn. Not that that does us any good. Hear anything from your sister?”
“Got a call into her. Interstellar robotic probes launched from Titan isn’t exactly something she can push too hard on. She doesn’t want to look like the crazy aunt who just escaped from the attic. That window dressing the Outer Planets Space Authority used to sell Saturn is looking pretty tattered. We don’t find metal, she can’t fight for us. Lunar mining isn’t the bad guys, its OPSA itself.”
Marc nudged the drill rpms a bit higher. Sampson might get it in his head to pull him out early.
OPSA’s He-3 solution was technically elegant. Gas processing stations--dressed-up hot air balloon technology adapted for Saturn--would ride high in Saturn’s atmosphere, concentrating the He-3. Cruisers would swoop gracefully down from the operations base at Enceladus to retrieve the precious He-3 cargo and transfer it to a stream of drone tankers making the circuit to and from Earth. Earth would have that endless supply of energy it so desperately needed.
“Abby’s flying today. I better give her a call before she takes off.”
“She’s got guts. Docking with those balloons is nasty business.”
“She said it’s worse than a trap on an aircraft carrier in a hurricane. They’ve lost two of seven cruisers so far.” ‘Graceful’ only happened in the glossy brochures.
OPSA was putting every penny it had into an improved cruiser design. OPSA’s new leaders had been brought in by the investing governments to get the program back on track. Rumors of a shutdown had circulated for months. No metal on Titan, no raw materials to build the probes, no need for a base. No base, and he’d be out of work, and headed back to Earth.
“You look at my CV yet, Tanaka?”
“Needs a tiny bit more work. Not much call for experts on drilling cryogenic ice on Earth.”
“Life is great, isn’t it? Hey, Tanaka, I got a call coming in from Abby. Thanks for the company.”
“Sure. Say hi to the wife.”
Marc flipped to the ops base channel.
“Abby, great to see you.”
Marc watched his wife’s image, transmitted six seconds ago, as his answer plodded along at the speed of light from his drilling platform on Titan, through the Titan orbital relay, and down to the Operations flight-base at Enceladus. Abby was absent-mindedly twirling a lock of her copper colored hair around and around her finger; a nervous mannerism that drove him crazy. She dropped her hand and smoothed out some imaginary wrinkles in her white pilot’s tunic.
“Marc, I need to tell you something. I want you to listen. Can you do that?”
“Yes, go ahead.” His gut clenched. This can’t be good. Another six seconds for her to fidget.
“At the welcoming party for the new cruisers, I met this pilot. We were having a good time, innocent flirting, and he kissed me. I should have pushed him away. But I didn’t.” She held up her hand to cut off any comment Marc might make. “Please listen. Marc--nothing happened. We went to his compartment, I know that was bad, but nothing really happened, I swear. But Marc, I’m scared. Part of me wanted to be there. Wanted him to do something. I called because I wanted you to hear it from me, and I wanted to apologize. I’m sorry, Marc.”
Marc sat motionless, strapped into the webbing of his seat, struggling to control the fear and anger that made him want to scream. She was doing it again. He felt like a worm stuck through with a pin, curled up in agony on some cruel child’s collection board.
“Abby,” he said. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking how long it’s been since you used your leave to come visit me. Three months now. Three times you stayed on Titan and worked.”
“Abby, it’s bad here. OPSA’s going to shut us down if we can’t find ore. They’re relying on me.”
“Don’t blame OPSA for your choices Marc.”
“How about your choices? Screwing around?”
“Marc! I haven’t been screwing around. I wish my husband showed some interest in screwing me.”
Her dark eyes, normally so bright, so animated, in that pixie face, were red now, glistening with tears.
Damned straight you better be crying. It felt good in some dark way to see her crying. He wanted her to hurt. He wanted to hurt her. He wanted to knife her with words that would shred the last of her composure, send her away sobbing. But that would be the end of things between them; the last time he would ever speak to the only woman he loved. So he kept those hurtful words to himself. What he wanted most of all was to pretend that this call had never happened.
He had neglected her. And--he’d been foolish to think she’d not be hurt by it. It was graduate school all over again. He’d been absorbed trying to survive getting his doctorate and she was in the Navy; flying fighters off ships stationed who knew where. That time it had been Marine Captain Jarlsberg trying to get in her pants. Bastard.
“Marc, I want us to be together. This place. This living apart--it’s bad for us. I have to know you still care. One more year, Marc, and I’m out. But you can’t ignore me out here.”
He stretched his fingers out, caressed her face in the monitor. A poor substitute for that soft skin. “Abs, I’ll get down to Operations more often, stay longer.”
He hung his head. Old promises.
“I want Earth, Marc. I want those babies we made.”
He looked at the photomicrograph taped to the hull next to his main monitor. Three embryos in storage on Earth in case six years of radiation messed up her eggs. Or his juice. Or one of them didn’t make it.
“Word is, I’m up for Chief Pilot. The bonus will pay for a house. We won’t have to raise our kids in one of the monoliths. Everything will work out like we dreamed. But you, Marc, you’ve got to show me it matters to you. I don’t feel like I matter to you anymore.”
“I want you, I want Earth, too. Sunshine. Oceans. Sandcastles. Babies in sundresses.” He looked aside at the still flashing yellow display. “Look. Abs. I’ll book myself down to Operations next week. I Promise. We’ll figure this out. Right now, I’ve got a problem here, I have to go. I’ll call you as soon as I can--before you launch. I do love you, take care.”
More seconds for his words to reach her.
“Sure Marc. Sure you do. Bye.” She didn’t look happy.
Abby was his life. He couldn’t imagine cheating on her. But his confidence, his comfort in their lives together, looked to her like inattention, neglect. She was a hot shot pilot who competed at sex like everything else. Living jammed together with a pack of overachievers, thinking he took her for granted, she reciprocated his neglect in her own way.
He couldn’t sit still; needed to run, to hit someone. He unsnapped his seat harness and stepped up out of the command seat and smacked his head straight into the protruding guard on the overhead instrument panel. Damn. Felt his scalp through his buzz cut. God that hurt. He looked at his fingers. No blood. Glared at the protruding guard on the overhead instrument panel. Slow it down, pal.
Two loping steps, kangaroo walking, carried him past his little living area, with its steel table and two chairs, to the upper level access shaft.
Abby used to tease him, said the drill platform was obviously a guy place. Said it was decorated in early ‘Racks-of-Equipment-with-Exposed-Conduit’ style. He needed to be with her. Not sure if it was too late already.
A quick glance through the inspection port in the round hatch showed the status of the gas analysis instruments on the other side; there was good pressure and, most important, good mixes. Titan’s atmosphere was mostly benign stuff. But then there were those pesky things like hydrogen cyanide. Wouldn’t take much of a leak to spoil your whole day. Never assume the remote alarms are working. Never assume--period.
He reached up towards the hatch, ankles locked around the ladder rails, and twirled the locking handle on the hatch set into the ceiling. Three turns, the seal released, and he lowered the hatch down. Easy ten foot climb against Titan’s gravity and he was in the generator room. This was the room that kept him alive. Without electrical power it would get very cold, very fast.
The bass roar of the motor generator sets was the dominant voice in the harmony of equipment room sounds. The tenor voices from the hydraulic string tensioner pumps and the alto of the engine coolant loop completed the chorus. Five seconds of listening told him things--like bearing health--that none of his instruments could.
Quick glances at the flow-rate and pressure gauges around the room confirmed everything was running well. Nothing beat analog gauges for quick human comprehension. Someone had taken a lot of care in laying out this equipment room. Pipes and conduits were in orderly patterns, and still arranged to allow the overhead winch free access to the heavy equipment and the path to the large maintenance airlock. Sea foam green was what they called the platform’s universal interior color. The shrinks thought it was the optimal color for long-occupancy confined spaces. He preferred the bright colors of the color-coded piping. They spoke to him of order, thought, planning.
A few steps across the metal grid flooring to the far side of the room, he peeked out through the thick window to the drill platform. No wisps of vapor from escaping mud; the robot handler was still slicing and stacking the ice cores from the last hole neatly into boxes for later analysis; and no misaligned pipe waiting to jam the drill string loader. All was good on Drill Platform #8. Too bad his life was so screwed up.
The tone in his earbud announced an incoming call. “Marc Durand, Platform Eight here.”
“Marc. It’s Tanaka. I’ve got a news flash,”
“My lottery ticket won?”
“I can hardly hear you.”
“Tanaka, hold on for a second, let me get below.”
Tanaka was wired in tight with every back door channel of information on the program--unlike himself, who was clueless. Tanaka was also the only other professional geologist on Titan and the only person who backed this last shot at finding a buried ore nugget. Two years ago it had seemed obvious to search crater sites for meteorites. Some had to have been the result of metallic asteroid impacts. Every crater so far had been a bust.
“Go ahead, Tanaka,” said Marc as he settled back into the driver’s seat.
“I just heard from my sister. They’re pulling the plug.”
“On the drilling?”
“On Titan. Senator Baxton retired today. The Honorable Senator Dwight Sauer is the new chairman of the Outer Planets Committee. He’s determined to make a name for himself by cleaning house. We’re getting swept out.”
So it finally happened. Not enough money to build new cruisers to suck the He-3 out of Saturn and still continue playing in the sandbox on Titan. Damn. They were so close to making it work.
“There are more hydrocarbons on Titan than there ever was on Earth. Plenty of He-3 from Saturn to burn to get it back. Can’t they see what they’re losing?”
“Next election is what matters. Sure there’s all the hydrocarbons you want, but no metals. You found any recently?”
“You would have heard me scream without the radio if I had. Tanaka, right here is the best shot we have.”
“I know it. You know it. Twelve hours and they’re going to start shutting down the program. You and I get a long ride back to Earth, all expenses paid. You’re too late, Marc.”
He and Abby would be separated by years, not weeks. She would mean well, she would make every promise, but she’d be alone--alone except for the pack of men whose major common denominator was a diagnosis of excess testosterone.
Too late, and soon unemployed. Unmarried might not be far behind. Shit. If he was in charge, he knew what he’d do. He drummed his fingers on the console desk. Hell, this is match point, isn’t it?
“Thanks for the call, Tanaka. I’ve got some things to do. Sure hope you’re wrong.”
Marc called up the seismic soundings. He confirmed that at this rate the discontinuity from the predicted meteorite was twenty four hours of drilling away. Even if no one else believed there was a metal mass there, he knew it was there. Nothing else made sense. If he could hit an easily accessible ore body, give Titan the affordable metals it desperately needed, everything would change.
He looked though the telemetry logs for the last hole he’d drilled. Expected to hit the ore that time too, but nothing. He’d bracketed his personal pot of gold with boreholes. This one would hit. But not in twelve hours.
He looked at the list of old log files. It would be so easy to do. Substitute an old file, all green lights, feed it to Sampson in place of the real telemetry, and then go balls out for the ore. It would get him fired if they figured out it was deliberate. But they were going to can the whole program if they didn’t have something to show.
A few keystrokes and the playback of the old log file was on its way to Sampson.
He slowly increased the weight-on-bit and the mud flow rate. Mud supply shouldn’t be an issue--the methane tank held plenty of liquid, the polymer powder tank was three quarters full, and he had ample pump flow rate available. Chipping, or worse, clogging of the bit was another matter. That would be bad. The penetration rate settled at fifty feet per hour. Half his indicators were blinking yellow now. He was going to have to do this the hard way--strictly manual, all the way.
He needed to call Abby before her flight left. He’d put all his chips on black and had spun the wheel. She deserved to know. They also had some unfinished business.
He typed in her link address and waited for her image to appear.
“Marc, thanks for calling back.”
“I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” he said. He explained the looming program cancellation and his wild shot at being the hero.
“If you don’t hit ore, they’re rolling up the program?”
“Something like that.” They might cancel no matter how good the ore was. If it was really good, it would be an enabler for the Saturn-Earth runs. Even the new Senator Sauer would lust after that. “The crater is right for a big mass, low speed, impact. I think there must be at least huge nodules of solid iron-nickel and iron-cobalt. Probably thousands of tons of it.”
“And they won’t give you more time?”
“We’ve drilled a lot of impact craters and found nothing. God only knows what happened to the impact bodies. Pulverized. Maybe sank through the ice.”
“I think it’s the Titan tooth fairy. She went around and cleaned out all the rocks under all the craters before you could get there.”
He had to laugh. “I staked my claim here before the tooth fairy could get it. Nothing so far, but I know this is it. We’ve never had gravity gradiometer data before this one, and it shows a concentrated mass. The other holes I drilled have the mass bracketed. It’s the bean counters that want to walk away; all they understand is beans.”
“Marc, I believe in you. But I’m scared. If they send you back, I’m stuck here for another year. And then transit time. I don’t feel good about this.”
He glanced away from the monitor to the image of three little clusters of cells. Their three babies, waiting for them back on Earth.
“Abby. We can do it. You can do it.”
She was starting to tear up again, wet tracks trailing down her cheeks.
She shook he head. “Marc. I can’t be here so long without you. I’m so lonely now, seeing you once a month isn’t enough. You’re talking years, Marc.”
“Abby, it’s going to work out. I’m going to hit ore so rich they’ll be renaming the station after me.”
She laughed through her tears. “Marc Durand Station? I’d go there.”
“I’m counting on it.”
“I’ve got to go, Marc. I launch in a couple hours.”
She was the best pilot they had, and even she’d wrecked a cruiser. Difference was, she’d nursed her crippled cruiser back up to the transfer station from the balloon with only one fatality. The other accidents, the cruisers had disappeared, tiny specks swallowed into the vastness of Saturn.
He re-checked his drill rate calculations. Even allowing for a drop in rate from progressive dulling, he should make it.
It had been hard to stay awake. Hour after hour of sameness. Drill rate continuously dropping. Now he was very close. Less than an hour to go. He tinkered with the controls trying to keep himself busy as much as trying to eke out the last bit of performance.
The mud pressure plummeted from yellow to orange to red before he could jerk back the drill rpms to half. Jesus H. Christ. Pushed the mud pump power to full.
Rate of penetration was five feet per minute, and falling. Shit. Shit. Shit. He’d never hit a patch of rotten ice this bad before. It must be deeply fractured to be sucking up all the mud he could throw at it. Now the bit was clogged. Or worse.
He watched the penetration rate for a while. Still falling.
“Tanaka, it’s Marc. Pick up Tanaka.” He kept stabbing the call tone. Where could the man be?
“Marc. What’s the panic?”
“My penetration rate is crap, and falling. Hit a patch of fractured ice, lost coolant, temps shot up, damn near froze the string in-place.”
“And how exactly did you do that at twenty feet per hour?”
“I might have been going a bit faster.”
Tanaka looked at him a long while, chewing the already savaged end of a writing stylus all the while. “A little faster. Yes. I see how that could happen.”
“I’m glad you understand.” Tanaka was smart. He knew Marc had gone off the reservation and was offering Tanaka a fig leaf if there was an investigation.
“You want to know if there’s any way other than a forced drop to clear the clog on the bit?”
“Right. I’ve run the speed up and down, run the weight on bit up and down, and it’s still fouled.”
“How far do you have to go?”
“I’m really close. Twenty feet. Thirty, maybe.”
“Do the drop.”
“Sure, deliberately fracture the cutters on the bits. Count on the sharp edges for cutting. But maybe it won’t clear the clog. If it does, they’ll dull faster than before. Pretty soon need another drop, cutters dull even faster--that’s a death spiral. One of those drops there’ll be no cutters left.”
Text message from Abby appeared on his screen: “Docked safely at the balloon. Turbulence was pretty bad. How are you? Strike gold yet? Love, Abs.”
He texted her back: “I’m trying like hell. I love you. Be safe.” He reached out and touched the picture of their three babies. He was going to do whatever it took.
“If you don’t want to shock it, you could ignore it,” said Tanaka. “Max out the ram pressure on the bit. Penetration rate should go up as the clog wears away.”
“Maybe. Or whatever is fouling the bit will finish the job, polish the deck nice and smooth. Game over.”
“Pull up the string and inspect the bit.”
“Not enough time.”
“Marc. You knew what you wanted to do when you called.” Tanaka was leaning back in his seat, fingers laced together on top of his black hair. “Do the drop. You done thinking out loud?”
“You know me. I needed to talk it out.”
“No problem. Mind if I listen in on your moment of glory? I’m bored with packing.”
“Glad to have you.”
“How’s Abby? I heard they delivered two new cruisers. I bet she has to beat the men off with a stick.”
“It’s pretty screwed up, Tanaka. Some new pilot’s chasing her and she’s not running very hard. She’s pretty pissed at me. I’m not so happy with her. Sorry to dump that on you, Tanaka.” He rubbed his eyes with both hands. “I’m tired.”
“Oh my God, Marc. I’m sorry. I was just kidding, I would have never—“
“It’s OK. I think we’re going to work it out. Won’t help if I’m shipped back.”
There was a long silence before Marc spoke again. “Pressure loss is stabilizing.”
The polymer particles in the mud had filled in whatever fracture in the ice had been stealing all his coolant.
He’d calculated the best drop height, double-checked it against the specs on the bit, and pulled the string back up just far enough for the drop. He hesitated on the ram pressure control. Tanaka was right. He really should pull the core, then he’d know what he was drilling through, he could adjust.
He shook his head. No. There wasn’t another way to get there in time. He set the mud flow to low, and the drill to slow rpms.
“Here I go.”
He commanded the string down at maximum force.
“Talk to me, Marc.”
“Rate of penetration’s climbing. I’m staying on low rpms.”
“I’m at max flow. Pressure—-it’s started to fall again.” He was out of the region the mud had sealed, back into the crap. He stared at the mud pressure and the drill torque. The pressure was falling, but slowly. The torque was just right; the cutters hadn’t fouled yet.
“Mud pressure has climbed twenty percent. I’m going up on the ram force and rpms.” Please God, let it hold.
He thought of Abby, piloting her cruiser back up through the raging storm of Saturn’s upper atmosphere with a heavy load of He-3. Her cruiser’s controls would be lethargic, the cruiser at its design limits. It was a lumbering bus now instead of a swooping hawk.
“Tanaka, it’s looking good. Pressure is shooting up, I must be past the fracture layer.” Set his controls to get forty feet per hour. Less than half an hour to contact the buried meteorite. Enough time to get the core section up and prove he was right. Titan program continues, Abby picked as Chief Pilot, and he’s the hero. It wasn’t a daydream. It was going to happen--unless the core came back up with silicates and his damnation.
Thirty minutes gone. He looked at the time display and the estimated depth. He should have been there by now. Even allowing for some boretube angle drift--
The penetration rate dropped, pressure stayed good, torque still good--this was it.
“Get a mass spec reading. Don’t leave me in suspense.”
“Already on it.”
His fingers raced over the controls, bringing up the RF power to energize the downhole mass spectrometer. It checked OK, and he armed the spectrometer’s laser. He drummed his fingers on the desktop, waiting for the laser to charge and fire.
He leaned forward to watch the display. If there was some way he could speed up the pitiful data transmission rate back up the borehole, he would. He knew exactly on the display where the iron emission spike should show. He couldn’t take his eyes off that spot.
An indicator on his display went red. Penetration rate was zero.
“Trouble, Tanaka. Penetration rate is zero. Mud’s OK”
“Torque is way down.” Slowly increased the weight on bit. No change. Raised it to the max. Still no change. Damn. He slapped the desktop. That mistake would have sent him flying in the cab if he hadn’t strapped himself in.
“I’ve hit something, something that’s really hard.”
“Glazed the bit?”
“Thanks for the positive thoughts.”
Back to the mass spec readout. Please, dear God, show me iron, show me iron . . . the graph plotted--and there was iron, nickel, too.
“Iron, Tanaka, maybe eighty percent. There’s Manganese, Chromium, Nickel.” Trembling with excitement, he looked again at the drill depth. No penetration. Zero.
“Marc. Fantastic. How thick? We need ten meters, at least. Don’t stop.”
“That’s a problem. I haven’t cut another inch. I’ve got four feet below the mass spec in the core, if that.”
“That’s bad, Marc.”
“Tanaka! You know this is a huge node—“
“I don’t know anything. Neither do you. Get us some proof. Think about Sampson. They tell him to shut down, what’s he going to do? Gamble? Or turn out the lights?”
“I’m going to pull the core. There’s four feet from the spectrometer to the bit. It could be solid iron. That would be proof for anyone.”
Marc watched through the remote camera as the bottom core segment emerged from the hole. A shiny band of iron, maybe two inches, was followed by an impossible three feet of yellow. Yellow something. What could that be? He refused to believe it.
“Tanaka, this is really bad. Two inches of iron. Three feet of yellow something.”
He shifted to the tele-microscope, used the remote core manipulators to slide the core so that he could inspect the yellow segment. No crystals, it was smooth, like so much solid nylon. Brought the mass spec up; stared at the results.
“Not sulphur, Tanaka. There’s Carbon and . . . what the hell—mostly fluorine and chlorine?”
“Something’s wrong, Marc, that’s like, I don’t know, it’s like Teflon. Go up to the top. Look at the boundary between that yellow crap and the iron. Is there diffusion into the iron?”
He slid the core over so he could see the boundary layer. “It’s knife-edge sharp. No diffusion.”
Marc pulled up on the yellow portion of the core, it came away easily from the iron. Angled the video camera to look at the exposed iron surface. Sweet Mother of God.
Tanaka was talking, but Marc couldn’t think about what he was saying. All he could think about was that three inch diameter core in his display. He counted the sides. Seven. Damn. Who was he kidding? That didn’t matter.
The mass spec results—God, it was obvious now. They were shouting a confirmation of what his eyes were trying to tell him.
He captured a still image of the video feed and sent it to Tanaka.
“Tanaka. Tanaka! Stop talking. You seeing that?”
“Marc, what’s this?”
“It’s the end of the core. It was up against the yellow stuff.”
“Marc, this isn’t funny. You don’t have time for games.”
“Tanaka, this is real. I swear to God.”
His drill core held a two-inch thick plug of metal. Metal that was one hell of a lot like stainless steel. And a bolt head, shiny as the day it was made.