It could hardly be called an asteroid. Barely 150 meters at the widest and weighing in at a few thousand tons. A mere pebble in the Asteroid Belt, it had only been discovered and registered two years before. But it was his asteroid, ‘ZZTP0DxQ’ which he had named Asteroid Charlene.
Well, strictly speaking it wasn’t his asteroid. Not in the strictest sense of what it means to own something. Space law did not permit ownership of an asteroid or any celestial body, but he had registered his mission with the Space Resource Utilization sub-committee (SRU) of COPUOS, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space. This gave him the exclusive right to mine this particular celestial body for the next 25 years. His mission? To go visit asteroid Charlene and dig out the gold. ‘Gold’ was the term used by space miners for the various metals and minerals extracted from asteroid mining operations. They seldom mined for gold itself. Other metals were often more valuable in space. Metals such as nickel and cobalt as well as traditionally valuable metals such as actual gold, and platinum and rhodium. Such metals were essential to off-world manufacturing for deep space exploration and human settlement missions. Miners referred to these metals collectively as ‘gold’, because of their value, the price that deep space exploration companies paid for the vital metal supplies they needed for manufacturing and repairs in space.
“Here I come, Charlene, baby,” he said, peering out at the empty space ahead, as if he could really see his quarry. It would be some time before he made visual contact.
He settled back in his single pilot seat and put on some of the 20th Century music they called “rock” for some reason he could never quite understand. But it seemed to him to be just right for asteroid mining, for visiting those funny shaped rocks in orbit between Mars and Jupiter and digging out the gold. As he stretched back and reclined in the pilot seat, he sang along to the words of one Stevie ‘Guitar’ Miller, born over 150 years ago.
“Some people call me a space cowboy...”
Jonathan (known as ‘Joker’) Jones had been in the space mining business for 15 years. As a surveyor, his work had initially been Earth-bound, studying the endless terabytes of telescope survey data, to identify likely candidates for mineral extraction in the asteroid Belt. Then, 11 years ago, he had taken the uncomfortable step of joining the off-world prospecting and mining teams in the Belt itself, doing close observation and survey work before the diggers went in to take out the gold. But he kept up his interest in poring through the data from the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ever on the lookout for that one big, metal-rich find that everyone else had missed. And his efforts paid off.
Two years previously, he had spotted an otherwise unknown asteroid as a blip in the numbers. It was too small to have been picked up in earlier surveys, but the initial data indicated it was jam packed full of precious metals. He quickly wrote and filed his mission plan, before anyone else could put one together, which gave him exclusive rights to visit and mine the asteroid for a period of 25 years. It was that easy. He then agreed a deal with the Celestial Resource Prospecting Group Inc, effectively his employer, to piggyback off one of their extractor missions in the Belt and to have use of his SOSS (Single Operator Survey Ship) for the duration. They would split the profits 50/50. On his share, which he estimated at $725 million, before tax, on the valuable metals alone, he figured he could retire happy. If he needed a little extra beer money, he guessed he could make another visit, and take out the remaining, less valuable, metals for maybe $110 or $120 million. Many times his current annual earnings. Or perhaps he would just sell the rights and forget about having to take the painful ride up into space ever again.
Then, just as he was dreaming of how he would spend the money, something caught his eye out of the forward observation window. The silvery-orange disc of Jupiter shone from the top right corner of the window but, otherwise, nothing other than the usual smattering of well-known stars. He looked again, nothing. He kept on looking, still nothing. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a spec of light about where his asteroid should be. He checked the range and no way should he be in visual contact yet. He looked again and he could definitely see something out there, where his baby Charlene ought to have been.
He checked the range yet again. Yes, there was a definite spec of light which must be bigger than Charlene. What the hell was that? Maybe he had miscalculated the size, he couldn’t be sure. He kept on looking and pointed the scope to try to bring the image in closer.
As he viewed the enlarged image on the scope, he could see not one, but two, objects. Maybe it was a binary, but no! it couldn’t be true!
Looking at the larger of the two objects, he could see a clear and definite straight line.
No! It was a ship! Out here in the nothing! a damn ship! Bastards!
He leant over to the comms panel and switched on transmit, open frequency.
“Hello, this is SOSS 721, CRPG, Joker Jones, pilot, close survey mission to asteroid ZZTP0DxQ Charlene. Identify.”
“Hello SOSS 721, CRPG, this is PS2021, Hank Carty, BTK Enterprises, transit mission, effecting repairs.”
“PS2021 you are not authorized to be in this sector, please vacate immediately.”
“Received SOSS 721 but no can do. Main thruster failure. Have landed on the nearest asteroid to effect repairs.”
Nearest asteroid? Just happens to be the most recently registered, highly valuable minerals, and so small, it would not have been noticed by any but the keenest eye. The chances were a billion to one. The bastards! They had faked a breakdown as a ruse to touch down on his asteroid so they could run off with the gold. His gold! They were of course within their rights to land and carry out repairs if they really were in trouble, but it was an old trick. For safety reasons, once a mission had been registered for a particular sector of space, that mission had exclusive rights under the Artemis Code to use that sector for the duration of the mission, subject to any time limits imposed by SRU. Those exclusive rights were, however, waived in an emergency, when a mission which was in jeopardy took priority, particularly if lives were at stake. In space law, if a ship and lives were at risk, the ship in trouble had absolute priority over any registered mission. He couldn’t argue with that. He thought for a moment. He couldn’t continue his mission until the emergency was over but, then again, he was duty bound to offer assistance if he could. He’d take a closer look and see what these ‘repairs’ were.
“Copy, PS2021, am coming in to render assistance.”
“That’s a negative, SOSS, assistance not required. Situation under control, hazardous procedures commenced. Please stand off!”
Joker did not reply.
“SOSS 721, this is PS2021, I repeat, stand off. No assistance required. Thanks buddy, but we have this under control, and it would be unsafe to approach any closer.”
“Damn, bastard claim jumpers!” he shouted at nobody in particular, thumping the console, having switched transmit off. That confirmed it. The bastards had used some fake breakdown as a ruse to land on his asteroid and steal his gold and he wasn’t going to let them get away with it. He had to think but fast.
“Okay, PS, no problem buddy, will approach to a safe distance and stand by in case you need me.”
“No need, buddy, we are all good here. Should be fixed in a few days and be on our way. Sorry for any inconvenience to your mission but it will only add a few days. After the time you spent out here in the Belt, that should be small beer.”
Yeah, right, all good, and on their way with his, Joker’s, gold. He’d see about that.
“Copy that, PS, but, repeat, will approach to a safe distance and stand by.”
It was a sensible precaution in the circumstances, to close in, to a safe stand-off distance, in case he was needed to assist. The pilot ship could hardly refuse. As long as he approached to a safe distance, he was not breaking any laws and would be on hand in case the ship did need assistance. But then, of course, he had other plans.
“Received SOSS, make sure it is a safe distance, am going EVA, co-pilot remaining on board. Keep this channel open, please.”
Joker smiled and put his feet up on the console and took a nap, as he let the shipnav guide him to his intended orbit. No sense getting excited at this distance. He would deal with Carty and his gold-robbing extravehicular activity in his own good time. His slumber was long, relaxing, dreamless and refreshing.
As he woke, he could just see the asteroid in the visual window, as a spec in the distance. Flat on one side and rounded on the other, the PS craft was anchored to the flat side, bigger than the asteroid. which was how he saw it when the asteroid was still way out of visual range. The faint glimmer of distant sunlight sparkled off the metal structure, glistening in the blackness of space. Jupiter looked serene but menacing out to the right.
This is it, he thought, now or never. He switched the pilot controls to manual, cancelled auto-landing sequence and hit the forward velocity PLUS button a couple of times. After a brief delay, the forward vector thrusters started to kick in and, as he felt the shudder of the burn and the increase in G pushing him back into his forward-facing pilot seat, he started to grin, a big, broad, Cheshire cat, grin.
The red hazard light began to flash with the incessant beep, beep of the warning tone. Then the voice alarm broke in.
“Warning! Warning! Collision hazard, object dead ahead, course alteration required.”
Joker just looked out of the obs window at his asteroid, Charlene, just visible as a spec in the distance, and held out his arms in a big wide, gimme-a-hug gesture:
“Come to Papa, baby.”
Switching his high-def scope to visual, he zoomed in on the ‘repair’ activity. Sure enough, Carty had gone EVA and had started to unload his mining equipment from the craft, his space ‘picks and shovels’, tethering each item to the rugged and uneven surface of the asteroid. Given the heavy duty, surface-ex suit Carty was using, it was difficult to work out the shape of a man inside, but he could see the arms working to move each item from the craft to the surface. As he approached, he thought he could see Carty turn to face him but wasn’t quite sure. By now, Carty oughta have a visual fix on him, as he approached at dangerous velocity. The sunlight, though faint at plus 300 million miles, was coming from the left and was enough to show up the craft and Carty’s fast approaching appointment with a big fat collision. The warnings continued, the pitch and volume increasing.
“Warning! Warning! Object dead ahead, collision imminent, Immediate evasive action required.”
Carty was now definitely looking out at the approaching ship, trying to judge velocity and distance from the growing spec in the blackness.
“Hey, Joker, you’re coming in a little fast there ain’tcha buddy?”
“Sure am.. Buddy,” was Joker’s brief and unfriendly reply.
“Warning! Warning! Collision imminent. Take evasive action now!”
Joker hit the override and silenced the warning. He wanted to hear what Carty had to say. Shipnav was not going to like this.
“SOSS! Stand off!” shouted Carty through his helmet mic. “You are too close and coming in on a collision course.”
Joker didn’t answer, he just watched through the scope and grinned and grinned and grinned.
Carty hesitated. Surely Jones wouldn’t be crazy enough to ram?
“Joker, you mad fuckin’ bastard, veer off! You’re gonna kill us all.”
At that, Joker quit smiling and turned to the laser controls. As a qualified and experienced manual approach surveyor, he knew how to use them. He had spent many years firing this particular heat-ray into asteroids, causing surface explosions that allowed him to collect a sample of the dust and debris that flew off into space. As a marksman, you could say that he could hit a bird in the eye flying. And this bird was about to feel his eye pop.
Judging velocity, direction, pitch and roll, he took careful coordinates and pointed the laser. He switched the laser to “arm” and flicked off the safety override. Waiting for the right moment, he sat there, eyes glued to the scope, finger on the “fire” button – the trigger.
By now, Carty had started to return his equipment to the craft, not taking too much trouble to secure it. He wasn’t going to wait for the crash land before he took off from this puny little world, gold or no gold. The last box stowed away on board, he attempted to detach his body suit anchor from the asteroid, so that he could reel in the umbilical and get himself back aboard his ship. His co-pilot was just as rattled, telling Carty to hurry or he would leave without him.
At that instant, Joker hit the trigger, sending a single, high-power laser pulse out through the void. He didn’t hear the explosion, of course, but he could see Carty disappear in a cloud of dust.
In a few seconds, the dust cleared, and he could just see the EVA suit bouncing at the end of its surface tether. At that point, the receiver broke in:
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck, Joker! What the fuck?”
Bang on target, the laser had hit the rock a few meters away from the suited space man, dangerously close though not, in this case, fatal. But boy, did it make him jump.
With his transmitter switched off, Joker let out a huge, gasping, raucous, belly laugh that shook his whole body. It was the best moment in his life. For several seconds, his body was racked with laughter before, bringing himself under control, he switched back to transmit. Without a trace of humor in his voice he spoke, quietly and with menace:
“Get the fuck off my asteroid, punk.”
He didn’t have to say it twice. By the time Joker was at a point five minutes from impact, Carty had packed his bags, cut the tether, reeled himself back through the air lock, as the co-pilot took the controls and readied for take-off. Within minutes the two of them were away in their ship and moving off at maximum thrust, back to their own orbit among the production asteroids. So much for main thruster failure.
Joker drank in the moment for a few seconds more before he remembered he was only minutes from collision, and blasting himself, his ship, and the asteroid into thousands of tiny fragments, adding to the number of asteroids in the Belt, as well as firing off particles into other orbits, probably including Earth’s. The thought of one day returning to Earth as a meteor shower did not appeal to him, so he fired off a few brief bursts of pitch and roll before hitting forward thrust, taking him off the planned course by a few degrees and missing the asteroid by less than a hundred meters. Some might call that a close shave and he certainly hadn’t learnt the manoeuvre in pilot school, but he had safely steered his ship off collision course in a very brief fly-by. He then switched control back to auto and let the shipnav take him back on course to his target, his asteroid, his Charlene and his gold.
He realized it would take another few days to get back into landing orbit, but he didn’t care. He could afford to wait. As he put his feet back up on the console, thinking of the riches to come, he switched the internal speaker back on and sang along to the music, out loud.
“You’re the sweetest thing that I ever did see-ee-ee. I really love your peaches, wanna shake your tree…”
'Joker Jones and the Asteroid' was first published in 2020 in:
© Raymond G. Taylor, 2020 all rights reserved. The author has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this work.
About the Creator
Author based in Kent, England. A writer of fictional short stories in a wide range of genres, he has been a non-fiction writer since the 1980s. Non-fiction subjects include art, history, technology, business, law, and the human condition.