The atmosphere in the airlock oozed out into space, the suit Jas was wearing expanded slightly around her, and the large iris in front of her opened slowly to reveal the darkness of space. Jas looked straight ahead and her eyes quickly found the familiar stars. They had moved slightly since yesterday.
She touched a control in the palm of her right hand and a soft exhale of vapor moved her forward, out of the safety of the airlock into space.
“Testing the drone net,” she spoke, then a prolonged jet of particles slammed into the inner seal of the airlock and Jas accelerated out of the vapor-filled cavern, like a bullet out of a gun. “One, two, three, alarm,” she counted, and on right on cue the on-board computer spoke its usual warning.
“Danger, you have reached escape velocity and without intervention you will leave the safe zone in twenty-four seconds.”
Jas said nothing. A twitch of the attitude control jets rotated her body and now she faced the airlock, the side of the ship. The asteroid swam into view slowly as she flew away from it. She watched, a silent countdown ticking off inside her head. At five seconds the computer spoke another warning, this time with more urgency in its voice, but Jas ignored it and focused on the surface of the asteroid.
The rock did not have a proper name, just a numerical designation that she’d forgotten weeks ago. It did not matter, all asteroids were the same. This one was a mountain of metal and ice, indistinguishable from its many siblings.
The Solange sat in a small depression, a spot where an earlier cosmic encounter tore a chunk the size of a mansion and left a suitable basecamp site. The ship was an unflattering collection of interconnected pods, each the approximate shape of an airliner fuselage, a common and cheap design from the early days.
Jas watched as the northern pod vomited dozens of lights, bright pinpoints that sometimes appeared to have halos as they propelled themselves on jets of vapor. They had a common destination, their lights streaking across the ship and the surface of the rock as they accelerated toward the pitiful human who had nothing better to do than launch herself too fast too far.
The asteroid receded, slowly, but the drones closed the distance much faster, their jets blasting away into the void.
The closest pair of drones flew on either side of Jas and fired their grapples, themselves smaller multi-legged drones that were attached to long metal-weave tethers. They grabbed a hold of Jas’ suit, scrambled on the surface of her right arm and left leg until they each found a mounting ring and grabbed on to it.
The drones thrusted, the cables grew taught, and Jas noted a force on her suit that pulled toward the rock, as if the asteroid had suddenly developed a weak gravitational field and was pulling her back towards its embrace.
“Drone net’s working,” Jas muttered to herself.
“What happens,” a voice spoke inside her helmet, “if one day it doesn’t?”
“You’ll just have to come and get me yourself. Morning Sam.”
Jas waved toward the ship and smiled when a series of lights around the south end, the control module, blinked in rapid succession.
The drones took a few minutes to pull Jas back to the ship, time that she spent in silence and watched the asteroid, her eyes moving from one familiar peak or depression to another. The closer she got, the more drones she was able to discern moving on the surface. These did not bother with visible-spectrum illumination and it was harder to spot them, but Jas had a lot of experience with it by now.
The surface drones moved around slowly, left small wisps of vapor in their wake as they moved along the surface. Once they found a suitable peak to destroy, they anchored themselves to the surface and started up electric drills that plunged into the rock. It was slow going, but the drones had the time and the persistence. There were hundreds now on the surface, and the next time that the asteroid swung through the Arena around Mars, a small percentage of the asteroid’s mass would be liberated and packed away aboard the Solange.
When the computer was satisfied that the hapless human couldn’t miss the asteroid if she tried, the grapple drones released themselves and reeled themselves back to their parents. Jas flew toward the asteroid alone, braked automatically when her approach brought her close, and killed her speed to almost a standstill when she was within arms’ reach of the rocky surface. She then proceeded along the surface of the rock, away from the ship.
Jas stayed within the shadow of the asteroid and slowly propelled herself in the direction of the terminator. Ninety meters from the airlock her path twisted past a peak she’d nicknamed Cape Horn and she was out of view of the Solange.
Jas admired, as always, the vast mostly-flat plain that stretched before her, and angled her approach towards it center, a nondescript hillock in the center of the plain. She approached the spot and released four grapples, the small-legged drones on tethers, which quickly scoured the surface of the asteroid to grab a hold of the rock below her. Jas crossed her legs into a lotus position and the tethers grew taught and pulled her down.
In just a few moments Jas was seated cross-legged on the surface of an asteroid that hurtled slowly toward Jupiter. Then something strange happened.
One of the dozens of nearby mining drones ceased its work, detached its tethers and floated toward Jas. When it was about two meters away it rose to face Jas and hung there, right in front of her.
Jas waited but there was no response.
“Move out of my way, man, you’re messing with my view.”
“What do you think about here?” The voice that spoke was unfamiliar and toneless. It had a strange mechanical feeling behind it, and it froze Jas. Her eyes grew wide and she looked at the drone in front of her.
Of course the drone hadn’t spoken, and if it did, it wasn’t with sound, for there was no air. The drone hung in space, in front of her, and the voice that spoke came from the speakers inside her helmet, the signals that forced the air to oscillate in such specific ways could have come from anywhere in the Solar System, but Jas couldn’t shake the feeling that the one who spoke was directly in front of her.
Jas sat there and thought. Obviously someone’s messing with me. Sam, probably. Let’s see what he’s up to.
For the first time while outside, Jas raised her left arm and used the large tablet that was strapped in place. She brought up the internal ship cameras and a personnel directory. Can’t mess with that one, not without me knowing. Unless you decided to grow a brain, Sam. Multiple video angles of the Solange showed empty hallways, darkened common area, an empty control module. Jas queried for the locations of the others and noted that the four remaining crew were in their quarters.
“Ship,” Jas spoke on a private channel to Solange, as she continued to watch the drone. It had not moved at all during this time. “Who’s controlling drone 2578?” she read off the serial number that was painted on its hull.
“Jas, that drone is under automatic control, no one is operating it. Is there a problem?”
“You bet there’s a problem,” Jas muttered in annoyance. “Please recall it for maintenance, think there’s something wonky with it.”
Jas waited a beat, but when the ship’s regular human-conversation delay passed and it had not replied, Jas felt a stab of panic. Too much had gone off the rails already.
“Ship? Can you hear me?”
“No one can hear us Jas.” The drone shifted left and right, small plumes of vapor escaping on either side as it adjusted its position. “What do you think about here?” the strange voice repeated itself.
“Now? Or every other time?”
The drone hung motionless and the voice was quiet. It was a pause that Jas could physically feel.
“I think about what we’re doing out here. I think about the future.” The drone watched, if that was a possibility, but Jas was almost certain that it was, that the consciousness behind the questions was a patient one and it was comfortable waiting for Jas to speak. “I wonder what all of this is. Why do the asteroids pass through the Arena? Sure, they’re pulling Mars out of this system and toward another, but why? And how?”
“The how is the simple part, isn’t it?”
“I suppose. Steer enough mountains, have them pass through the same region of space-”
“The Arena,” the voice interjected.
“-and that’s somehow enough to curve the orbit of a planet over millions of years. Yeah, very fucking simple to steal a planet.”
“It’s not easy, but it is simple.”
“Right. Well, I think about that. We’ve found someone’s construction contract, and we’re taking advantage of that.” Jas waved an arm around her, encompassing the drone, half the surface of the plain they were on, and hundreds of identical-looking drones that were mining the mountain they called home for the past month. “We’re stealing the matter to make our space fleet, and the kinetic energy of these floating mountains to launch it. I think about the stations we’re putting into orbit around Venus and Mars, brought there on the backs of asteroids just like this one, built out of them and their siblings.
“I think about the fact that our space industry exists not because of anything we’ve achieved, but because we’re hitching a ride on the coat-tails of giants. That makes me sad.”
“But you still come out here, every day.”
Jas nodded, but did not say anything. She watched the drone for a while, then consulted her tablet. Solange was still mostly powered down, night lights shone everywhere except the sleeping area, where the large self-sufficient sleeping pods housed the rest of the crew.
The drone fired its thrusters and moved toward the surface, away from Jas. She watched it, followed its path for a while, until the drone located a spot on the asteroid that appeared to Jas as suitable for extraction and started up its drill. Jas exhaled a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“Are you still there?” Jas said.
“I’m here, Jas,” the ship responded in its familiar helpful tone, as quickly now as always, with only a slight delay added for the comfort of its human crew. “What can I help you with?”
“Run diagnostics on 2578,” Jas said, but somehow knew in advance that they probably wouldn’t find anything.
She continued to sit atop the small hillock and pondered the strange conversation. In a minute Solange reported that the drone was functioning as normal. Jas nodded and stayed on the surface for her usual time. She watched 118A, but the drone simply continued its work.
Jas did not speak with anyone about the strange experience on the surface, but she did not let it go. The EVA was part of her morning routine, a way to wake up and orient herself at the start of the day, the habit usually provided her with purpose and perspective that was sometimes hard to find when cooped up inside Solange.
After she was back Jas consulted her work roster and finding nothing of an emergent nature she took herself off the roster. She put down “mental health day” in the log, a catch-all category the crew used for hangovers or after a long sleep-deprived night, and proceeded to go over the surveillance footage.
Each drone of course had multiple surround cameras mounted on it, and together they produced years of video every minute, so this was the start of Jas’ investigation. She pulled up the video from 2578 for the four minutes that the two spent speaking, and as well she isolated the other drones that were on the plain at that time.
2578’s recordings were there, but they did not match what Jas saw: during the time that Jas was speaking with the strange voice, 2578 recorded itself working on a chunk of iron ore. Their “conversation” was not recorded. Jas rewound the video and watched, at twice the normal speed, from the drone’s viewpoint as it exited Solange’s northern pod, maneuvered over the surface and drilled out eight chunks of ore, before the video finally caught up to the present and showed the drone working on its ninth.
“Fuck,” Jas cursed. Did it really happen? Are you going mad with cabin fever? The thoughts came unbidden and unwelcome, but Jas hesitated dismissing them. What if she was going crazy? Or maybe somebody spiked her food?
Jas called up a med drone and winced as it took a blood sample, but she was relieved to be doing something about this potential break from reality.
She consulted the recordings made by the other drones. These were more telling, as at least six had recorded Jas sitting atop the hillock. She watched from multiple perspectives her own form sit down in near-zero-gravity, but these recordings were as frustrating as 2578’s: all showed her sitting alone before she returned back to the ship.
The scientist inside Jas told her that she had incontrovertible evidence that she’d hallucinated the entire thing, but this terrified the part of her that wasn’t a cold and calculating machine (as that part referred to the scientist).
The med drone came back and gave, by this time, the unsurprising results that Jas was not tripping balls. No one had dosed her.
“Fuck,” Jas repeated. “This just isn’t my day, is it?”
Next, Jas went back through the metrics that Solange gathered about every member of the crew, things like heart-rate and oxygenation, respiratory rates, the microphone recordings from her suit, everything she could think of that the ship had access to.
Nothing, of course, stood out of the ordinary, nothing offered a plausible explanation of what could have occured out there under the starlight.
The next day, Jas did not go back out to the surface. The others asked what was wrong, as Jas had by now developed a reputation for her solitary space-walks, but she only shrugged. They didn’t push it, not at first.
The second day that Jas stayed inside, she was sure to appear busy and swamped with work. She was busy, but it wasn’t her regular work that she was concentrating on. Jas went back, all the way to the start of the space program, all the way to NASA, and searched for any signs of space dementia or whatever term it was that others had attributed to seeing the impossible while in space.
There wasn’t much to go on, not in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Those were the early days, before humanity had discovered the curious nature of the Arena and the asteroids that flew through it, had tugged Mars in infinitesimally small ways that would ultimately fling the Red Planet toward a nearby star system.
That was the time when the species had begun to tap into the vast potential of matter and energy that some unknown and inscrutable intelligence had organized.