Space Marshal Rory Rammer stepped out onto the landing in front of the Space Marshals office for the City of Ceres. Watching the traffic flying past him on the Emshwiller Expressway, he waited for a break in the flow. When one opened up, he flung himself into the air.
Grabbing a u-bar on the nearest traffic stanchion, he pivoted through ninety degrees and settled into the stream of hurtling human bodies. An experienced zero-gee commuter, he flew freely, only touching a hand to the towline when he needed to change direction or avoid a collision. Behind him, the sunshine glow from the expressway's origin at Ceres Central Park rapidly faded. Ahead, the flyway terminated at Ceres' South Pole and the pressure-docks for the big spaceliners.
Before he reached the tourist docks, though, he swung out of the river of humanity and onto the Conklin Crosstube. This took him toward the less-fashionable docks where lesser spacecraft and government rockets berthed.
Slowing to flash his ID at the guard shack, he bounced over a mechanic tucking into his lunchtime bento at an inopportune place, pivoted around a stanchion and shot down the center of the flexible tube connecting the Space Marshals rocketship Silver Star to Ceres' municipal pressure zone. Once through the open airlock, he caught himself against the catwalk running along the spaceship's long axis and began hand-over-handing 'up' to the rocket's nose.
"Skip!" he called ahead, "let's get the flight deck cleaned up. We've got a passenger along on this -- " He caught the headrest of his acceleration couch with both hands, bringing his zero-gee flight to an abrupt stop. In the couch lay a -- thing.
Rammer frowned at the younger man in the flight deck's right-hand seat. "Skip? Why is there a big gumball machine in my seat?"
Cadet 'Skip' Sagan's eyes swung from his superior officer's face to the offending mechanism. His mouth snapped shut with an audible 'smack!'
In truth, the 'gumball machine' description applied best to the thing's 'head': A transparent globe a foot across, but filled with a variety of arcane sensors, not gumballs. Below that, a cylindrical body flared out at its base. A pair of tentacular arms sprouted from its sides, ending in four-fingered manipulators.
It talked, too. "Hi!" the thing said, some hidden speaker emitting a voice suitable for the sort of relentlessly cheery anthropomorphic rodent that infests Saturday morning vidcast shows.
Rammer's cadet found his voice, which had a somewhat aggrieved tone. "He's not really a gumball machine, Rory."
A dirty suspicion began forming in Rammer's mind, having to do with the Commandant's unusually jolly mood when the marshal left his office ten minutes before. "The Commandant said we'd be taking along a local officer -- a 'Darryl Tate' -- on this mission."
"That's me!" the machine chirped. "DARIL-T-Eight! 'Deep-Space Automated Remote Intelligence and Legal Telepresence, Model 8'! Please call me 'Daril'!"
"I'm going to have a long talk with the Chief Psychologist about the Commandant's sense of humor," Rammer muttered.
Sagan showed no sign he had noticed the marshal's sour mood. "He's a deep-space robot police officer, Rory. And a heckuva nice guy. We've been having the best time!"
"He's still in my seat."
"Oops!" Daril said. "I am sorry. Let me get out of the way." Fans hummed in its base and air-jets propelled the robot up from the couch until it hovered just short of the overhead console.
"Thank. You," Rammer growled.
"You're welcome! I won't require an acceleration couch, of course. Just strap me to the aft bulkhead when we're ready to boost and I'll be fine!" To demonstrate this, the little robot hummed over the crew's heads and somersaulted to float in midair halfway to the bulkhead.
"Never any big nails around when you need 'em," the marshal muttered. "OK, 'Daril,' the Commandant said you'd fill us in on the background for our mission."
"Happy to! Ahem. Per Order Eighty-Five-Gee-Zero-Nine-Five-Special, Rocket Ship Silver Star and assigned crew plus special equipment DARIL-T-8, serial number --
Rammer cut short the robot's recitation. "Skip it."
"-- will proceed to asteroid "Minerva Beta-Prime," catalog number -- " "Skip it."
"-- to investigate shipments of suspicious materiel to the Heart of Gold Space Mining Company, Anson McGuire, Proprietor."
Suspicious materials? A drug case? Rammer wondered. Munitions? Not much market for either, out in the thin edge of the Asteroid Belt. "What sort of suspicious materiel?"
"Two metric tons of lithium deuteride."
Sagan looked as puzzled as Rammer felt. "Lithium deuteride? What would anyone want with two tons of lithium deuteride?"
"Nothing springs to my mind. Ask the parking meter."
"The -- ? Oh!" Sagan turned to face the robot. "Daril? What could you do with two tons of lithium doot?"
"Construct a hydrogen-fusion device!"
Despite his irritation, Rammer had to laugh and, if anything, his cadet enjoyed the joke even more. The marshal wiped an eye and asked, "What would an asteroid miner want with an H-bomb?"
"See, Rory?" Skip said. "I told you Daril has a great sense of humor."
"But I'm serious!" The machine actually sounded plaintive, its sensors whirring as it scanned the men's faces in turn.
"Yeah, right. C'mon, Skip, let's get strapped down. Those of us who require straps, that is. It's a long way to Minerva Beta-Prime."
The mechanical officer whirred aft, looking somehow dejected, and spread-eagled itself against the bulkhead. It did not speak again for the rest of the trip.
* * *
"Fifty feet per second. Thirty."
Rammer juggled Silver Star's yoke to keep his guide stars centered in the coelostat while his right hand hovered over the ENGINE CUTOFF switch. In the other seat, Cadet Sagan called off relative velocity as the rocketship backed toward its target, a point in space offset from the asteroid Minerva Beta-Prime.
The heel of Rammer's hand banged on the switch and the rumble of the main drive tapered off. The groaning and banging of cooling rocket motor nozzles replaced the rumbling and faded in turn. The marshal pulled his face back from the coelostat's rubber eyepiece and massaged his eyes. "Welcome to Minerva. Now, what are all these blue plastic drums floating around? I think we vaporized a couple of them with the drive exhaust. Skip, zoom in the video and see if you can read anything."
Sagan twiddled a zoom knob by the aft-facing video screen. One of the blue containers, spinning almost imperceptibly, loomed close enough to read its shipping label. "Got one, Rory. 'Denemore Chemical and Atomic, Inc. Lithium Deuteride, Commodity Grade.'"
Rammer stopped rubbing his forehead and leaned in toward the screen. "So McGuire really ordered two tons of lithium doot. Next question: What's he doing with it? Besides creating a hazard to astrogation."
Before anyone could speculate further, a querulous voice crackled over the open comm channel. "Ahoy the ship! Rocketship, identify yourself!"
The marshal keyed a mike. "This is the Space Marshals cruiser Silver Star, R. Rammer commanding. ID yourself."
The voice on the other end of the link did not sound impressed. "I'm Mackie McGuire. President, CEO and sole employee, Heart of Gold Space Mining. Now, what're you Feds doing sniffing around my claim?"
Sagan panned the video frantically over the slowly-rotating asteroid's rocky, red-brown surface. Apart from a dozen fresh-looking craters and a framework crammed full of blue drums at the South Pole, there was no sign of human activity.
"Mr. McGuire, where are you? I don't see a ship or an airdome."
The voice on the radio cackled. "I'm in my ship, the Tarrier, on t'other side of Minerva Alpha-Prime. That's this other chunk of rock about a hundred klicks Sunward. Here's my beacon."
A point of green light appeared on the radar display in the center of their instrument panel and began to blink steadily.
"Better hotfoot it on over! McGuire out."
Rammer replaced the microphone in its clip, a bit harder than strictly necessary. "OK, Skip, yaw the Star around. If McGuire won't come to us, we'll go to McGuire. And one other thing."
Sagan's hand paused in midair, halfway to the attitude controller. "Yeah, Rory?"
"Try not to hit any of his trash," Rammer growled.
* * *
Tarrier proved to be a battered Hanshaw-class mining tug, loosely tethered to the Sunward side of Minerva Alpha-Prime. McGuire apparently lived in his ship. No airdome habitat could be seen, though a miscellany of mining equipment -- sunsails, spider-webbing, a magazine for explosive charges -- covered most of the Sunward side of Alpha . Rammer maneuvered the Silver Star to cut off any escape trajectory for the other rocket, and set the autopilot on "Station-Keeping." Then he and the cadet suited up and jetted over to Tarrier's airlock.
Oh. And Daril, too.
* * *
Rammer cycled the tug's airlock and 'stepped' into the cabin, showing his badge in his right hand and an empty left hand. Drifting left to make room for his cadet to enter, he introduced himself and Sagan. That done, he batted away a drifting paper napkin (used) and wrinkled his nose at the thick fug of the habitat's air. It smelled as if McGuire had not vented his living volume to vacuum as a sanitary measure in a long time. The marshal had just finished re-stowing the badge when he heard the 'lock cycle a third time. Oh, yeah, he thought. The robot.
"Hi, there!" Daril squeaked. It surprised the marshal to see the machine show a badge of its own, attached to a little arm that extended from its fuselage.
Does the commandant let it arrest people? Rammer wondered. Actual people?
McGuire, in person, was a stocky man in his fifties, dressed in a patched spacesuit liner. He had the bare feet and nimble toes of a habitual zero-gee dweller and Rammer suspected he styled his hair and beard by jamming his suit's helmet down over his head and trimming off whatever stuck out. Unlike most of the rock miners the marshal had met (semi-hermits by necessity), McGuire seemed delighted to have visitors and was distinctly talkative. Almost giddy, in fact. "Where'd ya get a talking gasoline pump?" he asked.
"A talking -- ?" Rammer wasn't following this at all.
McGuire covered a little smile with his hand, as if enjoying a private joke. "Watch this. Hey, you! Mr. Machine. Take your left manipulator."
The robot cheerily played along. "OK!"
"Now extend the first digit." McGuire demonstrated what he wanted with his own hand.
A faint whir was audible as the robot complied. "Sure! Like this?"
"Perfect. Now stick it in the audio pickup on the left side of your head-assembly." Metal met sensor with a distinct "Tink!"
"Hmm. He does look a bit like a gas pump," Rammer admitted. "Now, Mr. McGuire -- "
"Call me 'Mackie.' Everybody does. Well, everybody does when there's someone around to call me anything at all. Which is every coupla years."
"OK, 'Mackie.' This is just a friendly Federal fact-finding visit. Did you recently take delivery of two metric tons of lithium deuteride?
The question didn't appear to faze the prospector. If anything, it intensified the mischievous "I've-got-a-secret" vibe he gave off. "Yep. What about it? Doot's legal."
"So's cream cheese, but if you order two tons of it, people will talk."
"Heh! Guess so. Well, it's like this -- Didja see Minerva Beta on the way in?" McGuire gestured vaguely in the direction of Capella.
"A typical nickel-iron asteroid, one thousand five-hundred eleven meters by three-hundred twelve meters," Daril threw in.
"Thank you for that no doubt accurate but totally irrelevant information, Daril," Rammer growled.
McGuire looked from the man to the machine, then shrugged. "Yeah. She's a good rock. High-grade cobalt, even some gold. But that nickel-iron's tough! I blow pits with these little atomic excavators -- "
Rammer interrupted, "Beg pardon?"
"They're what I keep in that explosives storage module. Little pissant one-kiloton atom bombs to break up the ground. Then I sift through the rubble, refine out whatever's worthwhile, and drop it down to Mars or Earth on a sunsail."
The marshal nodded, his thoughts a little uneasy. "I'm following you so far."
"But I got to thinking: Wouldn't it be a lot more efficient if I could move the whole asteroid down to Earth orbit?"
"We've moved asteroids before," Skip said. "You explode a series of atomic charges to nudge the asteroid from one orbit to another."
McGuire scoffed at such caution. "Yeah, but it takes forever. And a slewpot-full of charges. So I thought some more: What if I could move Minerva with just one, big charge? And that's where the doot came in!"
"I don't like the sound of this," Rammer said.
McGuire charged on. "If y' pack lithium deuteride around an atomic fission exploder and set it off, when the fireball swallows the doot -- "
"You get a fission-fusion reaction!" Skip threw in.
"And a really big bang!" McGuire finished.
"Of approximately fifty-seven point three megatons. Assuming two tons of lithium deuteride, that is. An H-bomb," Daril volunteered. "Hey, I was right!"
Rammer felt his second dirty suspicion of the day forming in his mind and this one put his apprehensions about the Ceres commandant's sanity to shame. "McGuire, are you telling me you've actually done this?"
"Well, yeah. But ya gotta set the charge off at just the right time to send the asteroid toward Earth."
Oh, Lord, thought Rammer. Let that be tomorrow morning. "Like when?" McGuire glanced at an archaic wristwatch. "Like -- right about now."
Enough light leaked around the edges of the sunshades over the ports and main windscreen on Tarrier's bridge to turn the little space bright as a desert dawn. There was a sudden whispering against the hull of gas and dust blowing past.
"Hang on, boys! The shock wave'll be here in a sec! That's why I wanted you back here with me, behind Alpha."
The whispering swiftly increased to a hurricane-roar and Tarrier bucked and strained against its cables. Rammer heard his cadet yelling something about "von Karmann vortices," "a transient-flow medium" and "Reynolds numbers," but mostly he grabbed a thrust member and hung on until the mining ship shuddered to stillness once again.
McGuire recovered first. Of all of them, he had had the best notion of what was coming but even he seemed surprised by the violence of the shock wave. The air of the bridge was full of drifting manuals, pieces of clothing, fragments of mummified food and random trash. "Switch on the televideoscope there, youngster," he shouted to Sagan, "and we ought to be able to see Minerva Beta sailing away toward Earth."
The vid, suffering from a case of electromagnetic-pulse hangover, took its own time coming up. When it did, it showed an enormous yellow-white fireball against black space, darkened with cloud-drifts of vaporized iron and nickel cooling into red-glowing dust-droplets and clinkers. It was a breath-taking vision, but it did not include the asteroid Minerva Beta-Prime.
The marshal found his voice first. "McGuire, didn't it occur to you that an asteroid might have flaws and cracks in it, places where it would split if you hit it hard enough?"
McGuire did not shift his eyes from the screen and Rammer could hardly hear his whispered response. "No."
Rammer muttered a particularly radioactive curse under his breath. "Didn't you ever talk this cockamamie idea over with anyone?"
"'Tain't no one out here to chin-wag with!"
"It's shattered into a million pieces!" said Skip, his eyes hot-bonded to the screen.
"Approximately three hundred thousand pieces between ten centimeters and two hundred meters across," added Daril. "Of which some twenty thousand will strike Earth, killing everything on the planet with the possible exception of tube worms in the deep ocean trenches."
"You have got to believe that we have not heard the end of this," said Rammer.
* * *
The marshal vacuumed dust off the outside of his spacesuit as Tarrier's airlock finished pressurizing, then hung up the vacuum-head and pushed the inner door open. McGuire, he saw, had curled up in a fetal position in mid-air. His cadet was riffling through papers clipped to the mining ship's plotting table / dinner table / spare bed; McGuire's calculations and engineering sketches for his grand scheme to revolutionize asteroid mining. The robot was, for a change, 1) quiet and 2) out of the way, by the aft pressure bulkhead. Sagan looked up as the door clicked shut. "Rory, you're back! How's the Star?"
Rammer pulled off his helmet and shook his head, disgusted. "A piece of debris clobbered our main comm antenna. We're out of touch with Ceres, Mars, Earth. Everyone. It wouldn't even do any good to rig a big Yagi aerial. Local space is full of nickel-iron dust from McGuire's H-bomb. It could take days to dissipate. Or weeks."
McGuire moaned and tried to tuck his head even more tightly into his arms. Rammer grabbed a bare foot and tugged at it, setting the miner to slowly rotating.
"C'mon, McGuire, on your feet. Or at least quit curling up like that. We need to talk."
Speaking into his armpit muffled the miner's voice. "I've killed everyone on Earth!"
"Nonsense! You haven't killed anyone. Yet. The first asteroid fragments won't hit Earth for -- "
Rammer looked over at Sagan for an estimate, but the robot was faster. "Fourteen months, three days, seven hours. Approximately."
"Uh -- thanks. Now McGuire, there are four big chunks more than fifty meters across. Daril, how much sidewise 'kick' do we need to give a fragment for it to miss Earth by, oh, twice the orbit of the Moon, say half a million miles?"
A red light on Daril's "chest" flickered briefly. "Four point three feet per second. Currently."
"That sounds do-able. Now how many atomic detonators do you have left, McGuire?"
McGuire looked up for the first time since he grasped the disaster he had caused. "Seven."
"That ought to do it. Skip and I will help you nudge those four into safe orbits before we head back for Ceres."
"But that leaves thousands of the boogers still headed for Earth!" McGuire wailed "They're not as big, but they'll wipe the planet clean as a billiard ball!"
"Not necessarily. McGuire, I have a proposition for you," Rammer said. "I can't make any promises. I'm not a judge. But I think my word will carry some weight with the authorities."
Suspicion and hope fought across the miner's features. "What is it?"
Rammer snapped a lanyard to his helmet and began unfastening his pressure suit's gauntlets. "You take Tarrier and follow the meteor swarm down toward Earth. Catch up with each fragment, the heaviest ones first, and kick them sideways so they'll miss the planet. If you do fifty fragments a day, you'll have 'em all cleaned out before you reach Earth."
McGuire's face fell. "It's no use! How can I pick out which ones are dangerous? They all look alike!"
"To the naked human eye, yes." Rammer indulged himself in a dramatic pause. "To the robotic eye, no."
"Hi, there!" Daril's automated enthusiasm could not have contrasted more with McGuire's gloom.
The marshal gestured at the robot. "We'll leave Daril with you to point out which fragment to hit next."
The machine jetted up to McGuire's shoulder and rotated to "face" him. "Sounds like fun! Let's get started!"
McGuire rubbed his chin, releasing a few whiskers to drift around the cabin. "Eh. What's the alternative?"
Rammer had a persuasive answer ready. "Probably death by slow torture at the hands of the survivors of the human race." Silence fell over the cabin, growing longer by the second. "Well?"
"I'm thinking it over," said McGuire. "I'm thinking it over."
* * *
On the flight deck of the Silver Star, Marshal Rammer and Cadet Sagan ran through the last items on the pre-acceleration checklist.
"Attitude gyros caged," the marshal read.
"Check," Sagan responded.
Rammer pulled his crash harness tight. "Main turbopump to speed."
Behind them, a mechanical wailing rose in pitch, then stabilized.
The cadet touched his stylus to the checklist item so that it tuned dark, then tugged at his own harness straps. "Check."
"Checklist complete." Rammer secured his clipboard to a magplate and reached for the microphone switch. "Let's say our farewells. Rammer to McGuire. We're about to boost for Ceres. How about a progress report?"
On the radio, the robot's voice sounded little different than it did in person, but something very like exasperation had replaced its habitual enthusiasm. "No, no! Move the charge five centimeters down and eight right. Otherwise the fragment will spin."
McGuire, on the other hand, sounded tinny over a helmet mike. Especially when he was shouting. "'Five centimeters!' 'Eight centimeters!' You metal slavedriver, I was drifting rocks by hand before you were weaned off D-size batteries!"
"Nonetheless, it will spin."
I never knew there as a speech algorithm for 'snit,' Rammer mused. "Gentle -- uh -- 'men.'"
"Huh? Oh. We're getting it done, Marshal." McGuire's sullen tone undercut his reassuring words.
"But we have fallen behind my work-progress projections." Daril's voder clipped its syllables a bit more tightly even than usual. "For reasons I will not go into."
"Say, Marshal, what would happen if we didn't get quite all these meteors deflected? Who would know?" McGuire paused just a second before going on. "Hypothetically, that is."
"I'm sure the Department of Science will train telescopes on the meteor swarm," Rammer said.. "And if the fragments stop being deflected, likely they'll call in the Space Force."
"The- The Space Force?" McGuire didn't quite gulp.
The guys you call when it absolutely, positively has to be bombed until the rubble bounces, Rammer thought. He continued, "Who will probably lob in a salvo of big H-bombs -- gigaton class -- to vaporize the whole swarm."
"And anyone who happens to be too close," Rammer finished.
McGuire's laugh tried to be ingratiating. "Guess we'd better get crackin' on this boulder. Right, Marshal?"
"Right, Mackie. Rammer out."
Rammer turned to his cadet and saw the worry on the younger man's face. "Gee, Rory, you don't think the Space Force would really vaporize them, do you?"
"Might. Might not." The marshal could not resist a less-than-professional impulse. He leaned toward the younger man and stage-whispered. "Want to put a little money down on it?"
Sagan's shocked expression made it all worthwhile.