Visionary space industrialist Dan Randolph is deadbut his protégé, pilot Pancho Barnes, now sits on the board of his conglomerate. She has her work cut out for her. For Randolph's rival, Martin Humphries, still wants to control Astro and still wants to drive independent asteroid miners like Lars Fuchs out of business. Humphries wants revenge against Panchoand, most of all, he wants his old flame, Amanda, who has become Lars Fuchs's wife.
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About the Author
Dr. Bova was President Emeritus of the National Space Society and a past president of Science Fiction Writers of America, and a former editor of Analog and former fiction editor of Omni. As an editor, he won science fiction’s Hugo Award six times. His writings predicted the Space Race of the 1960s, virtual reality, human cloning, the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars), electronic book publishing, and much more.
In addition to his literary achievements, Bova worked for Project Vanguard, America’s first artificial satellite program, and for Avco Everett Research Laboratory, the company that created the heat shields for Apollo 11, helping the NASA astronauts land on the moon. He also taught science fiction at Harvard University and at New York City’s Hayden Planetarium and worked with such filmmakers as George Lucas and Gene Roddenberry.
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The Rock Rats
Book II of the Asteroid Wars
By Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2002 Ben Bova
All rights reserved.
I said it would be simple" Lars Fuchs repeated. "I did not say it would be easy."
George Ambrose — Big George to everyone who knew him — scratched absently at his thick red beard as he gazed thoughtfully out through the window of Starpower 1's bridge toward the immense looming dark bulk of the asteroid Ceres.
"I di'n't come out here to get involved in daft schemes, Lars," he said. His voice was surprisingly high and sweet for such a shaggy mastodon of a man.
For a long moment the only sound in the compartment was the eternal hum of electrical equipment. Then Fuchs pushed between the two pilots' seats to drift toward Big George. Stopping himself with a touch of his hand against the metal overhead, he said in an urgent whisper, "We can do it. Given time and resources."
"It's fookin' insane," George muttered. But he kept staring out at the asteroid's rock-strewn, pockmarked surface.
They made an odd pair: the big, bulky Aussie with his shaggy brick-red mane and beard, hovering weightlessly beside the dark, intense, thickset Fuchs. Three years in the Belt had changed Fuchs somewhat: he was still burly, barrel-chested, but he had let his chestnut brown hair grow almost to his collar, and the earring he wore was now a polished chip of asteroidal copper. A slim bracelet of copper circled his left wrist. Yet in their individual ways, both men looked powerful, determined, even dangerous.
"Living inside Ceres is bad for our health," Fuchs said.
George countered, "Plenty of radiation protection from the rock."
"It's the microgravity," Fuchs said earnestly. "It's not good for us, physically."
"I like it."
"But the bones become so brittle. Dr. Cardenas says the rate of fractures is rising steeply. You've seen that yourself, haven't you?"
"Maybe," George half-admitted. Then he grinned. "But th' sex is fookin' fantastic!"
Fuchs scowled at the bigger man. "Be serious, George."
Without taking his eyes off Ceres's battered face, George said, "Okay, you're right. I know it. But buildin' a bloody O'Neill habitat?"
"It doesn't have to be that big, not like the L-5 habitats around Earth. Just big enough to house the few hundred people here in Ceres. At first."
George shook his shaggy head. "You know how big a job you're talkin' about? Just the life support equipment alone would cost a mint. And then some."
"No, no. That's the beauty of my scheme," Fuchs said, with a nervous laugh. "We simply purchase spacecraft and put them together. They become the habitat. And they already have all the life support equipment and radiation shielding built into them. We won't need their propulsion units at all, so the price will be much lower than you think."
"Then you want to spin the whole fookin' kludge to an Earth-normal g?"
"Lunar normal," Fuchs answered. "One-sixth g is good enough. Dr. Cardenas agrees."
George scratched at his thick, unkempt beard. "I dunno, Lars. We've been livin' inside the rock okay. Why go to all this trouble and expense?"
"Because we have to!" Fuchs insisted. "Living in microgravity is dangerous to our health. We must build a better habitat for ourselves."
George looked unconvinced, but he muttered, "Lunar" you say?
"One-sixth normal Earth gravity. No more than that."
"How much will it cost?"
Fuchs blinked once. "We can buy the stripped-down spacecraft from Astro Corporation. Pancho is offering a very good price."
"The preliminary figures work out ..." Fuchs hesitated, took a breath, then said, "We can do it if all the prospectors and miners put in ten percent of their income."
George grunted. "A tithe, huh?"
"Ten percent isn't much."
"A lot of us rock rats don't make any income at all, some years."
"I know," said Fuchs. "I factored that into the cost estimate. Of course, we'll have to pay off the spacecraft over twenty- or thirty-year leases. Like a mortgage on a house, Earthside."
"So you want everybody here in Ceres to take on a twenty-year debt?"
"We can pay it off sooner, perhaps. A few really big strikes could pay for the entire project all by themselves."
With burning intensity, Fuchs asked, "Will you do it? If you agree, most of the other prospectors will, too."
"Whyn't you get one of the corporations t' do it?" George asked. "Astro or Humphries ..." He stopped when he saw the look on Fuchs's face.
"Not Humphries," Fuchs growled. "Never him or his company. Never."
"Okay. Astro, then."
Fuchs's scowl shifted into a troubled frown. "I've spoken to Pancho about it. The Astro board would not vote for it. They will sell stripped-down spacecraft to us, but they won't commit to building the habitat. They don't see a profit from it."
George grunted. "Lot they care if we snap our bones."
"But you care," Fuchs said eagerly. "It's our problem, George; we have to solve it. And we can, if you'll help."
Running a beefy hand through his thick mop of red hair, Big George said, "You're gonna need a techie team to do the integration job. There's more to puttin' this habitat of yours together than just connectin' Tinkertoys, y'know. You'll need a flock of geek boys."
"That's already in the cost estimate," Fuchs replied.
George huffed a mighty sigh, then said, "All right, Lars, I'm in. I guess it would be pretty good to have a base out here in the Belt with some decent gravity to it."
Fuchs smiled. "You can always have sex aboard your own ship."
George grinned back at him. "Believe it, mate. Believe it."
Fuchs went with George to the ship's main airlock and helped the bigger man get back into his hard-shell spacesuit.
"They're testin' lightweight suits back at Selene, y'know," he said as he slid into the rigid torso and worked his arms through the stiff sleeves. "Flexible. Easy to put on."
"And the radiation protection?" Fuchs asked.
"Magnetic field surrounds the suit. They claim it's better'n this stuff." He rapped his knuckles against the torso's cermet carapace.
Fuchs gave a little snort of disdain. "They'll need years of testing before I'd buy one."
As he wormed his hands into the gloves, George said, "Me too."
Handing the bigger man his fishbowl helmet, Fuchs said, "Thanks for agreeing, George. It means a lot to me."
George nodded solemnly. "I know. You two want to have kids."
Fuchs's cheeks reddened. "It's not that!"
"Well, not alone, no." Fuchs looked away from George for a moment, then slowly admitted, "I worry about Amanda, yes. I never thought she would want to stay out here with me. I never thought I myself would be out here this long."
"There's a lot of money to be made here in the Belt. A lot of money."
"Yes, yes indeed. But I worry about her. I want her to be in a safer place, with enough gravity to keep her from deconditioning."
"And enough radiation shielding to start a family," George said, grinning. Then he pulled on his helmet before Fuchs could think of a reply.CHAPTER 2
Once George had cycled through Starpower 1's airlock and jetted back to his own Waltzing Matilda, Fuchs went down the ship's narrow central passageway to the compartment where his wife was working.
She looked up from the wallscreen as Fuchs slid the compartment door open. He saw that she was watching a fashion show beamed from somewhere on Earth: slim, slinky models in brightly colored gowns of outrageous designs. Fuchs frowned slightly: half the people of Earth displaced by floods and earthquakes, starvation rampant almost everywhere, and still the rich played their games.
Amanda blanked the wallscreen as she asked, "Has George left already?"
"Yes. And he agreed to it!"
Her smile was minimal. "He did? It didn't take you terribly long to convince him, did it?"
She still spoke with a trace of the Oxford accent she had learned years earlier in London. She was wearing an oversized faded sweatshirt and cutoff work pants. Her golden blonde hair was pinned up off her neck and slightly disheveled. She wore not a trace of makeup. Still, she was much more beautiful than any of the emaciated mannequins of the fashion show. Fuchs pulled her to him and kissed her warmly.
"In two years, maybe less, we'll have a decent base in orbit around Ceres with lunar-level gravity."
Amanda gazed into her husband's eyes, seeking something. "Kris Cardenas will be happy to hear it," she said.
"Yes, Dr. Cardenas will be very pleased," Fuchs agreed. "We should tell her as soon as we arrive."
"But you're not even dressed yet!"
"It won't take me a minute," Amanda said. "It's not like we're going to a royal reception." Then she added, "Or even to a party in Selene."
Fuchs realized that Amanda wasn't as happy as he'd thought she would be. "What's the matter? Is something wrong?"
"No," she said, too quickly. "Not really."
"Amanda, my darling, I know that when you say 'not really' you really mean 'really.'"
She broke into a genuine smile. "You know me too well."
"No, not too well. Just well enough." He kissed her again, lightly this time. "Now, what's wrong? Tell me, please."
Leaning her cheek on his shoulder, Amanda said very softly, "I thought we'd be home by now, Lars."
"Earth. Or even Selene. I never dreamt we'd stay in the Belt for three years."
Suddenly Fuchs saw the worn, scuffed metal walls of this tiny coop of a cubicle, the narrow confines of the ship's passageway and the other cramped compartments; smelled the stale air with its acrid tinge of ozone; felt the background vibrations that rattled through the ship every moment; consciously noticed the clatter of pumps and wheezing of the air fans. And he heard his own voice ask inanely:
"You're not happy here?"
"Lars, I'm happy being with you. Wherever you are. You know that. But —"
"But you would rather be back on Earth. Or at Selene."
"It's better than living on a ship all the time."
"He's still at Selene."
She pulled slightly away, looked straight into his deep-set eyes. "You mean Martin?"
"Humphries," said Fuchs. "Who else?"
"He's got nothing to do with it."
Now she looked truly alarmed. "Lars, you don't think that Martin Humphries means anything to me?"
He felt his blood turning to ice. One look at Amanda's innocent blue eyes and full-bosomed figure and any man would be wild to have her.
Coldly, calmly, he said, "I know that Martin Humphries wants you. I think that you married me to escape from him. I think —"
"Lars, that's not true!"
"I love you! For god's sake, don't you know that? Don't you understand it?"
The ice thawed. He realized that he held in his arms the most gorgeous woman he had ever seen. That she had come to this desolate emptiness on the frontier of human habitation to be with him, to help him, to love him.
"I'm sorry," he muttered, feeling ashamed. "It's just that ... I love you so much ..."
"And I love you, Lars. I truly do."
He shook his head ruefully. "Sometimes I wonder why you put up with me."
She smiled and traced a fingertip across his stubborn, stubbled jaw. "Why not? You put up with me, don't you?"
With a sigh, he admitted, "I thought we'd be back on Earth by now. I thought we'd be rich."
"We are. Aren't we?"
"On paper, perhaps. We're better off than most of the other prospectors. At least we own this ship ..."
His voice faltered. They both knew why. They owned Star-power because Martin Humphries had given it to them as a gift.
"But the bills do mount up," Amanda said swiftly, trying to change the subject. "I was going over the accounts earlier. We can't seem to stay ahead of the expenses."
Fuchs made a sound somewhere between a grunt and a snort, "if you count how much we owe, we certainly are multimillionaires."
It was a classic problem, they both knew. A prospector might find an asteroid worth hundreds of billions on paper, but the costs of mining the ores, transporting them back to the Earth/Moon region, refining them — the costs of food and fuel and air to breathe — were so high that the prospectors were almost always on the ragged edge of bankruptcy. Still they pushed on, always seeking that lode of wealth that would allow them to retire at last and live in luxury. Yet no matter how much wealth they actually found, hardly any of it stayed in their hands for long.
And I want to take ten percent of that from them, Fuchs said to himself. But it will be worth it! They'll thank me for it, once it's done.
"It's not like we're spendthrifts," Amanda murmured. "We don't throw the money away on frivolities."
"I should never have brought you out here," Fuchs said. "It was a mistake."
"No!" she contradicted. "I want to be with you, Lars. Wherever you are."
"This is no place for a woman such as you. You should be living comfortably, happily —"
She silenced him with a single slim finger across his thin lips. "I'm perfectly comfortable and happy here."
"But you'd be happier on Earth. Or Selene."
She hesitated a fraction of a second before replying, "Wouldn't you?"
"Yes," he admitted. "Of course. But I'm not going back until I can give you all the things you deserve."
"Oh, Lars, you're all that I really want."
He gazed at her for a long moment, then said, "Yes, perhaps. But I want more. Much more."
Amanda said nothing.
Brightening, Fuchs said, "But as long as we're out here, at least I can make a decent home for you in Ceres orbit!"
She smiled for her husband.CHAPTER 3
Build a habitat big enough to house everyone living at Ceres?" asked Martin Humphries, incredulous.
"That's what the rumble is," said his aide, a winsome brunet with long- lashed almond eyes, full pouty lips, and a razor-sharp mind. Even though her image on his bedroom wallscreen showed only her head and shoulders and some background of her office, the sight of her set Humphries's mind wandering.
Humphries leaned back in his wide, luxurious bed and tried to concentrate on business. He had started the morning with a vigorous tussle with a big-breasted computer analyst who nominally worked in Humphries Space Systems' transportation department. She had spent the night in Humphries's bed, yet even in the midst of their most passionate exertions he found himself closing his eyes and fantasizing about Amanda.
His bedmate was in the shower now, and all thoughts about her or Amanda were pushed aside as Humphries talked business with his aide, whose office was several levels up in Selene's underground network of corridors.
"It sounds ridiculous," Humphries said. "How reliable is this information?"
The aide let a wintry smile cross her tempting lips. "Quite reliable, sir. The prospectors are all talking about it, back and forth, from one ship to another. They're chattering all across the Belt about it."
"It still sounds ridiculous," Humphries grumbled.
"Beg to differ, sir," said the aide. Her words were deferential, but the expression on her face looked almost smug. "It makes a certain amount of sense."
"If they could build a habitat and spin it to produce an artificial gravity that approaches the grav field here on the Moon, it would be much healthier for the people living out there for months or years on end. Better for their bones and organs than sustained microgravity."
"In addition, sir, the habitat would have the same level of radiation shielding that the latest spacecraft have. Or even better, perhaps."
"But the prospectors still have to go out into the Belt and claim the asteroids."
"They are required by law to be present at an asteroid in order for their claim to be legal," the aide agreed. "But from then on they can work the rock remotely."
"Remotely? The distances are too big for remote operations. It takes hours for signals to cross the Belt."
"From Ceres, sir," the aide said stiffly, "roughly five thousand ore-bearing rocks are within one light-minute. That's close enough for remote operations, don't you think?"
Humphries didn't want to give her the satisfaction of admitting she was right. Instead he replied, "Well, we'd better be getting our own people out there claiming those asteroids before the rock rats snap them all up."
"I'll get on that right away," said the aide, with enough of a smile curving her tempting lips to show that she had already thought of it. "And mining teams, too."
"Mining operations aren't as urgent as claiming the stupid rocks."
"Understood," she said. Then she added, "The board meeting is this morning at ten. You asked me to remind you."
Excerpted from The Rock Rats by Ben Bova, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2002 Ben Bova. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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