Johnny's Creative Writing

At the Zenith of No Man's Space. (17,900 words.)

Home
Jakita
SHORT STORIES
DIATA 001 & 002
DIATA 003 & 004. WARNING! Contains controversial sex scenes.
DIATA 005 & 006
DIATA 007 &008
DIATA 009 & 010
DIATA 011 & 012
DIATA 013 & 014
DIATA 015 & 016
DIATA 017
KYLIE. Complete story. 8811 words.WARNING! Controversial and sexually explicit material.
ZENITH. Complete story. 17900 words.
MARTIAN CAFE Chapters 001 & 002
MARTIAN CAFE 003 & 004
MARTIAN CAFE 005 & 006
MARTIAN CAFE 007 & 008
MARTIAN CAFE Chapters 009 & 010
About Me
Favorite Links
Contact Me
SCUDDAR Chapters 001 & 002
SCUDDAR chapters 003 & 004
SCUDDAR Chapters 005 & 006
SCUDDAR Chapters 007 & 008. WARNING contains sexual explict scenes!
SCUDDAR. Chapters 009 & 010. WARNING! Chapter 009 contains sexually explicit material.
SCUDDAR Chapters 011 & 012
SCUDDAR Chapters 013 & 014
SCUDDAR Chapters 015 & 016
SCUDDAR Chapters 017 & 018
SCUDDAR Chapters 019 & 020
SCUDDAR Chapters 021 & 022
SCUDDAR Chapters 023 & 024
SCUDDAR Chapters 025 & 026
SCUDDAR Chapters 027 & 028

At the Zenith of No Man's Space

At the Zenith of No Man’s Space.

Zania sat in the shuttle looking out over the launching pad. Dark clouds obscured the sky while the relentless drizzle reflected her feelings. Her work entailed searching large asteroids for rare minerals and up to the beginning of her last shift she had enjoyed the analyzing and processing of the finds. Her colleague and friend had been transferred and another assigned in his place. The replacement, in her opinion was a pig to work with. He would treat her as an inferior and often would refuse to answer her when she attempted to make conversation. She didn’t look forward to yet another three-month shift on that god-forsaken lump of rock called Asteroid CS942V8946 with him.

Her reflection in the plasglass of the window caught her attention. She tried to focus on it but the double image shimmered with the slight vibration as the engines ignited. In a way, she was glad she couldn’t see clearly. She knew she would see a face with dead eyes and without expression and no make-up to brighten her countenance. Her dark brown hair, normally long and wavy, was swept up on top of her head to afford room for the helmet she would be wearing when she alighted from the shuttle at her destination. The station on the asteroid was small and didn’t have an airlock large enough to connect to a shuttle’s. The rough surface of the asteroid meant the shuttle had to land some fifty yards away from the station; the closest part that was flat enough to land.

She thought of Darl who would be her sole companion for the next three months. He had had remained on the asteroid while she brought samples of their finds to Earth and had taken three weeks leave that was due to her.

Zania didn’t like Darl, a humanoid from Dykor, a planet of Zeus in the galaxy of Ankedor. He had no manners and rumor had it that he assumed that all females, wherever they came from, were inferior; although that view was unacceptable by the Federation of Inhabited Worlds. He had been reprimanded several times, the last time demoted to his present position of researcher for rare minerals on asteroids. Zania could not understand why, knowing his attitude, her superiors had assigned a woman to be his partner. Fortunately for Zania, his demotion had apparently taught him a lesson and he kept his opinions to himself, although his actions, like ignoring her when she spoke, showed he still felt the same way.

A high-pitched whine brought her attention back to the shuttle. The engines were increasing power and the shuttle was about to lift off. A recorded voice announced that lift off would be in three minutes. Zania lifted her arms as the automatic safety belt snaked around her waist and tightened, holding her firmly in her seat. The first stage of lift off was always turbulent as the shuttle ripped through the atmosphere as it gathered speed to break free of Earth’s gravity. Once free of gravity, the warp drive would engage and Zania would have four hours of listening to the idle chat of the five other passengers destined for Station Starburst, the first stop.

Station Starburst was aptly named. Its center was a huge globe with thousands of tiny specks gleaming with light on the dark side and twinkling with reflected light from twin suns on the other. From the central globe, hundreds of shafts radiated outward in all directions, each with many smaller globes spaced along them giving the appearance of an exploding star.

Peering out of the shuttle window, Zania watched as the Station loomed larger every second. She had seen it a dozen times before but its beauty still fascinated her. The sight took her mind off the depression she had had since that morning. Soon the shuttle was too close for her to see the complete structure and only one of the shafts filled the view. The tiny specks of light on the dark side became windows and Zania knew that behind them, thousands of people from many worlds worked and lived.

"Docking in three minutes." The recorded female voice came over the speakers in Unispeak, the universal language of the Federation.

The shuttle rotated laterally and the station shifted out of view until all she could see was empty space; a black backdrop with points of light that were distant stars. A minute later there was a jolt as the shuttle docked onto one of the airlocks of Starburst Station and the seatbelt unwound from her waist.

"Welcome to Starburst Station. Passengers continuing on to Maliska and Asteroid CS942V8946 may alight but must be back at Gate N1906 at five thirty-three Unitime. Please ensure you have all your belongings before you leave the shuttle. Those continuing may leave their belongings in the lockers corresponding to their seat numbers."

The recorded voice continued to repeat the message as the passengers prepared to leave. The only luggage Zania had was her spacesuit carefully placed in the locker. All she needed for the next three months was already on the asteroid. She doubted that anyone would be continuing to Maliska on this shuttle, chartered by Minerals, the governmental branch she worked for, and she was certain no one but herself would be going to the asteroid.

Zania waited until the other passengers had exited before getting up to leave. She was in no hurry. The two and a half hours lay-over were not enough to see much on the station. She could get a meal and a shower in the terminal and do a little window-shopping but that was about all she would have time for.

Travelling light had its advantages. Zania was through customs before any of the other passengers. Leaving the restricted area, she emerged into the busy terminal and immediately managed to get a autocart that would whisk her to her destination. She knew where she wanted to go and made her way to the restaurant that served food she could recognize and digest. She could never trust her stomach to hold down any of the hundreds of restaurants that catered for those from other worlds.

The Taste of Earth restaurant was divided into four sections, Asian, European, Western and Bar Snacks. Zania chose European and the autocart stopped by the entrance. She found a vacant table, sat down and spoke her order into the replicator. The plate of roast beef and potatoes, carrots, peas and gravy along with a bread roll, butter and a glass of red wine appeared within seconds.

"May I join you or do you prefer to eat alone?"

Zania glanced up at the owner of the deep, crisp voice standing beside her and recognized him as one of the passengers from the shuttle.

"No. You may sit here if you wish," she replied.

The man settled into the seat opposite her and peered at her meal.

"That looks good. May I ask what meat that is?"

Zania paused as she was about to place a fork of roast potato into her mouth.

"Roast beef," she informed him

"Yes. I thought so but I wasn’t sure. It could have been pork." He ordered the same meal and leaned back in his seat.

Zania sensed his eyes on her and glanced up again. His dark, almost black, eyes had a hint of amusement in them as they met hers. She felt her cheeks begin to flush and quickly dropped her eyes to consider her plate.

"Andrew Santilli," he said as he retrieved his meal from the replicator and set it before him. "My name," he added.

"Zania Robinson." She reached out her hand for him to shake. Taking it, he held it just a moment longer than necessary.

"Yes. I know, Miss Robinson." He smiled as her eyes widened in surprise. "We’ll be seeing a lot of each other on the asteroid during the coming months."

Zania’s mind raced. Was Darl being replaced? Why hadn’t she been informed? Why had Santilli only just now revealed who he was? He could have introduced himself on the shuttle.

"It was a last minute decision by Minerals to send me to help," Santilli explained as though reading her mind. "They are very interested in one of the minerals you discovered. They have named it Naronite."

Zania wondered which of the two samples she had delivered interested them. She had never heard of them sending anyone to help in previous discoveries. What could Santilli accomplish that she and Darl couldn’t?

She pushed her empty plate away and ordered a strawberry sundae for dessert and studied his face while she ate. His hair was dark and wavy and his face had a tanned, rugged appearance that suggested he had worked out in the open a lot. A small scar above his right eyebrow and another on the left of his square chin, which had a shadow of stubble added to the ruggedness. His tight fitting tunic emphasized his broad shoulders and muscular frame. His eyes fascinated her being dark and clear with a warm and mischievous twinkle in them.

Maybe the next three months wouldn’t be all that bad she mused. She finished her sundae and stood up.

"Mr. Santilli…"

"Andy, please, Miss Robinson," he interrupted politely, standing up.

"Then call me Zania. Andy, I really need a shower before going on to the asteroid."

"I understand. See you at the gate at five thirty-three, then."

"Yes. Thanks for the company." She waved goodbye by twiddling her fingers and left him to finish his meal.

 

 

Zenith

Chapter 2

After a shower and a massage, Zania arrived refreshed at the departure gate carrying a bag with the well-known "Future Commodities" department store logo.

Andy was sitting on a seat reading and looked up as she approached. He began to stand up but Zania waved a hand at him to remain seated. She flopped into a seat beside him and eased off her shoes.

"Oh, my poor feet," she said, crossing her legs and rubbing a foot as she looked at him with a wry smile. "I must weigh more on this station."

"We are on the end of a spoke. The gravity is greater then it is closer to the center," explained Andy. "They average it out the best they can."

"You’ve been shopping, too," said Andy, pointing to the bag on the floor.

"Just some girl things I needed," said Zania. She wasn’t going to tell him she purchased the make-up and perfume because he would be staying on the asteroid. She needed a reason to take pride in her appearance since she had had nothing to give her any incentive since working with Darl. The mad rush going through the store was the real reason for her aching feet.

"Passengers for Maliska and Asteroid CS942V8946 may now board the shuttle," the recorded voice announced. Zania slipped her shoes back on while Andy picked up her bag. As they walked toward the gate, Andy kept glancing over his shoulder. Zania wondered if he was expecting someone.

They found their seats, Andy’s was two rows in front of hers and on the opposite side, and sat down in readiness for the shuttle to undock. She noticed that he kept glancing at the open airlock and ducking his head to look out of the window. She wondered if someone was supposed to have seen him off. Maybe he has a girl friend or a wife she mused.

The engines ignited and she felt the familiar vibration as they warmed up. Suddenly, a slightly overweight man hurried onto the shuttle and sat down in the foremost seat in front of Andy. He was almost bald with just a little dark hair at the back and sides. He also had a small, dark moustache. He was about fifty-five.

The airlock hissed closed and the engines whined as their power increased. The usual recorded three-minute warning was announced and the seatbelts tightened. Andy relaxed and ceased looking out the window.

The trip to Maliska would take over an hour. Andy had come to sit next to Zania and chat. The other passengers remained in their seats. Zania noticed the late arrival appeared to be engrossed in a sheaf of papers he had removed from a briefcase.

During the journey Andy and Zania exchanged information about themselves. Zania learned that Andy was part Italian and part French and lived in Londonia, the capital of Earth, all his life. Zania had lost count of her own heritage but always considered herself as a British Londonian. It seemed strange that even after centuries of racial mixing and progress, one still held on to what one considered their homeland. Zania supposed it was no different to holding on to Earth as one’s homeworld in spite of the Federation of Inhabited Worlds.

Andy had just begun to tell her how Minerals had become his employers when the recorded voice interrupted him.

"We will be landing at Outpost on Maliska in five minutes. All passengers must alight. Passengers for Asteroid CS942V8946 will continue on another shuttle at gate fourteen at seven-twenty Unitime."

"That’s unusual," exclaimed Zania, "I’ve never had to change shuttles before."

"Minerals have chartered another shuttle. There is some equipment that I am supposed to take to the asteroid and this shuttle doesn’t have a hold big enough for three grav-buggies," Andy replied, "Sorry, I didn’t think it was important enough to mention."

Maliska was a small world a little larger than Earth’s moon, and had three huge cities that were commercial wholesaling posts for many worlds. It also had a breathable atmosphere as long as one didn’t exert oneself too vigorously. Outpost, the largest of the cities had a landing site for inter-galactic space vessels.

The bald man left the shuttle first. He hurried through the airlock as if late for an appointment. Zania and Andy took their time getting their belongings. While Zania only had her carefully packed spacesuit, Andy had two cases in the hold. Once in the terminal, he arranged with the airport officials for them to be transferred to the shuttle that would take them to the asteroid.

"Now we have an hour to wait," said Andy. "Shall we get a drink?"

"Sure. As long as it isn’t alcoholic," replied Zania.

"Well let’s see if we can get coffee here."

They showed the guards their passes and left customs and into the arrival lounge.

A familiar sign caught Andy’s eye and he pointed.

" We’re in luck. We can get some coffee there." Zania nodded and allowed him to lead the way. He walked briskly and Zania had a hard time keeping up with him. By the time they got there she was breathless. She was not used to the thin air of Maliska.

"What’s the hurry?" she panted. "We have an hour to drink a cup of coffee."

Andy apologized as he quickly scanned the people in the room. There were only about fifteen in the restaurant.

"Looking for someone?" asked Zania as she sat down at a table.

"Restrooms," said Andy with a grin. "I’m busting!"

Zania saw the universal sign for male and female. "Over there," she said pointing in the direction of the restrooms. "Take your time. I’ll order." She watched as he made his way toward the restrooms. He didn’t seem in a hurry any more. She spoke into the replicator and ordered the coffees and separate cream and sugar.

As she removed cups, the bald man entered and sat down at a nearby table with his back to her. He leaned down to place his briefcase on the floor. As he did so his tunic rose above his waist. Zania’s eyes widened as she caught a glimpse of a hand-blaster before he straightened up again to place his order.

Andy returned and sat down just as the bald man stood up and headed for the restrooms.

"He’s got a hand-blaster," Zania whispered to Andy.

"Who?" asked Andy, looking around at the other tables.

"The bald guy that was on the shuttle," said Zania.

"He can’t have. Customs would have found it." Andy shook his head as he added cream to his coffee.

"I saw it! Under his tunic at the back!" hissed Zania insistently.

"Well it’s none of our business."

"We should call security!" Zania raised her head and looked around to see if there were any security guards in the restaurant.

"No! We’ll be delayed and miss the shuttle. It’s none of our business."

"He’s coming back."

The bald man sat at his table and gulped down his drink. Andy turned to look at him.

"I can’t see any blaster," he said.

"It’s under his tunic. I saw it when he put his briefcase down."

"He’s going. Watch." The bald man stood up and stretched then, as they watched, he bent down to pick up the briefcase. His tunic rode up as before. They didn’t see the blaster.

"I swear he had one," said Zania.

"You must have imagined it," said Andy, chuckling. "We would have looked really foolish if we had called security."

They finished the coffee and ordered another and chatted. Ten minutes later Andy excused himself again.

"I must have a bladder bug," he said. He went to the restroom again while Zania finished her coffee.

When Andy returned he suggested they start make their way to gate fourteen. Fifteen minutes later, they were aboard the bigger shuttle and waiting for lift off.

 

Zenith Chapter 3


During the short journey to the asteroid, Zania insisted that the bald man had a blaster.

Andy argued that it was almost impossible for anyone to conceal one from the customs staff.

They finally agreed to disagree and spent the remainder of the journey discussing the use of the three buggies in the hold. Andy explained they would enable the collection and processing of the Naronite to be completed much quicker.

"Minerals want as much as we can mine as soon as possible," he told her. "In other words, they want results fast."

"What's so special about it?" inquired Zania.

"You'll have to ask Minerals that," replied Andy with a shrug. "They called me in at the last minute and briefed me without giving me much information. I had no time to ask questions."

Asteroid CS942V8946 was shaped like a coffin. It was approximately six kilometres long, two kilometres wide and two kilometres deep. The asteroid was seven hundred million kilometres from Maliska and orbited the twin suns every four Uniyears, about the same as Maliska's year. According to scientists, it was believed to have been a wandering asteroid captured by the twin sun's gravity and no one had bothered to disagree.

The control-cabin door opened and a young uniformed man came into the passenger seating area.

"We'll be landing in ten minutes," he informed them, "Please fasten your seatbelts."

He helped tighten the seatbelts, tugged them to make sure they were secure, then went back to the control room.

"Personal service," said Zania with a smile. "I like that better than the recorded warnings."

"This is a freight shuttle, not a passenger one. No need for the recordings," Andy told her. "They don't often carry passengers."

"Just how big are these buggies?" Zania's screwing her face with curiosity as she asked.

"Just the normal size. But I have a two-seater shuttle in the hold, too."

"A shuttle? Complete with pilot, I suppose?" she asked sarcastically.

Andy smiled at her. "I'm a qualified pilot," he told her. "I will need to go to Maliska a few times during my shift on the asteroid.

Andy Santilli was full of surprises, thought Zania. She looked out of the circular window and caught a glimpse of the asteroid as the shuttle swung around into position. A few minutes passed and the shuttle jolted as it landed.

She was about to undo her seatbelt when the craft lurched and she let out a startled cry. Then it settled again.

"Uneven surface," Andy explained.

They rose from their seats and put on their spacesuits. Zania pinned her hair up on top of her head. She had unpinned it when she went for a shower on Starburst Station for Andy's benefit as well as her own. She didn’t often have the opportunity to work with a good-looking man like Andy. She intended to do her best to impress him.

The man returned from the control cabin and checked their suits before placing his helmet on then ushered them to the airlock and pressed a button by the doors.

The inner door hissed open and they entered. Once inside, the man pressed another button and the inner door closed and they waited for the air to be extracted before the outer door opened.

The man pressed another button on the control panel and a ladder unfolded to the asteroid’s surface.

"Be careful at the bottom," said the man, "it's not even.

One could easily jump from the shuttle with the weak gravity but Zania supposed the crew had to follow procedures.

She climbed halfway down and jumped the remainder.

The two men jumped down without touching the ladder.

Very macho, Zania thought with a wry smile.

Zania looked at the station fifty meters away while the men began unloading the hold. Lights shone out through all the windows, illuminating the area around it. She could see Darl's silhouette in one of the windows watching them.

Although she couldn't see his face she knew it was expressionless. He never showed emotion and no matter how hard she tried she couldn't ever guess what he was thinking.

"I'll go on!" she called to Andy. He waved a hand in acknowledgement and entered the hold. By the time she had reached the station, Andy had already removed it from the hold and was landing the shuttle where he wanted it.

The other man was driving the last of the buggies out of the hold.

Zania went into the airlock and then the station. She removed her suit, folded it and placed it in a locker. To her surprise, Darl came to greet her.

"Good vacation?" he asked. Zania wondered if he really cared whether her vacation was good or not.

"It was a change," she answered. "We have a guest staying with us for the next three months."

"I know. Minerals called and told me." He nodded as he replied but his face and tone was completely emotionless. "He's taking over."

Zania looked at him hard. "Really? He never told me that. I thought he was here to help." Zania’s curiosity about all the secrecy increased. There must be something really special about that mineral, Naronite. Why wasn't she being informed? If Darl already knew, why couldn’t Andy have told her?

The inner door of the airlock hissed open and Andy entered. He slipped out of his spacesuit and put it carefully away in a locker then turned to face them.

"You must be Darl," he said to the humanoid. "I am Andrew Santilli."

"Minerals told me you were coming," answered Darl. "You are taking control here."

Zania turned to Andy frowning. "Why didn't you tell me that?" she asked.

"I was going to tell you together and at the same time explain what we have to do," replied Andy. "It looks like Minerals told Darl before I had the chance."

Zania had to admit that his explanation was a reasonable one.


"It's been a long day. I suggest we eat something and then I need some sleep," said Andy.

"I will explain what Minerals require of us as we eat."

"The small station did not have a replicator. Pre-packed food stored in a refrigerator had to be heated in a microwave.

Andy chose one and placed it in the microwave while Zania and Darl each chose a package and placed them with Andy's.

As they ate, Andy explained why he had been sent by Minerals.

"One of the finds you made has interested Minerals and they need as much as they can get. They have already named it Naronite. I don't know why they are jumping about like they have ants in their pants, but my job is to look for a certain trace element in it. I can't tell you what this trace element is because they swore me to secrecy. That is how important it is. I’ve seen the molecular structure of the trace and that is what I am to look for and separate."

He looked at them to see what their reactions would be.

Darl, as usual, was expressionless. Nothing seemed to surprise him.

Zania on the other hand was curious.

"Why can't they find this trace element themselves? We can mine it and send it to them," she said. "Surely that would be a better way."

"Because they believe not all of the Naronite contains the trace. The rest is pretty useless and to transport a lot of useless material does not appeal to Minerals. I am to separate the trace from the rest."

"So all we do is go out and mine the Naronite and you do the separating, right?" asked Zania. As far as she and Darl were concerned it was just what they did every day but made easier with Andy doing the processing and separating.

"Not quite. They are also interested in the other find you made but not to the same extent. Darl and I will be concentrating on the more important mineral, Naronite. You will look for and mine the other. I think you listed it as RN84/210?"

"RN84/210 was my find. The other, RL28/301 was Darl's."

"Yes. That's why I think it appropriate that Darl works with me on it. It was his find."

"But there's more RL28/301 than there is of RN84/210," protested Zania. "RN 84/210 is harder to find! It’s scattered in tiny veins all over the asteroid at different depths. Darl’s find is all in one place and near the surface."

"We'll give you a hand when we get enough of this Naronite sorted out," said Andrew smiling at her.

Zania looked from Andy to Darl. If Darl ever showed any emotion, she was sure he would have been smirking now.

She would be out searching for longer periods than the two men would be. It didn't seem fair to her. She would be working harder and spending more time outside the station and alone.

She rose from the table in disgust. "I'm going to bed. I'll leave you chauvinists to yourselves."

"Zania, I follow orders too," said Andy apologetically. "It's how Minerals want it done."
She shrugged, picked up the bag containing her purchases from Starburst Station and went to her room.

Zenith Chapter 04

The eventful day had been exhausting for Zania. The tearful farewell hugs and kisses from her parents and the dash across Londonia to the spaceport with her father, who insisted on seeing her off, had been tiring enough. Then the unexpected detour, the change of shuttles and finally the news that Andy was taking control of operations on the asteroid had all added to her confusion and stress. The final disappointment that she would be working alone on the opposite side of the asteroid while the two men had it relatively easy was an unexpected, and as far as she was concerned, an unfair blow.

She picked up the bag containing the make-up and perfume she had bought. Removing them, she placed them on the small plastic cabinet that served as a dressing table. There was no seat so she had to sit on the edge of the bed to see into the circular plastic mirror. She tilted it so the image of her face
looked back at her. She saw nothing spectacular. It was a face that could have belonged to millions of other plain women without make-up. She unpinned her hair and shook it loose. The dark curls fell around her shoulders. Long hair was hardly suitable for her work but her mother asked her to promise she wouldn’t cut it. Due to an illness, her mother had lost much of her own hair when Zania was a child.

"Beautiful hair is a woman’s crowning glory," her mother had told her many times. Zania recalled how her mother used to brush her hair when she was a small child. She smiled as she recalled how she used to complain loudly and beg mother to stop as her scalp hurt after fifty strokes of the brush.

Zania tilted the mirror again, this time so that she couldn’t see herself. Standing up, she undressed, folding her garments and putting them away before climbing wearily into her bed. She lay looking out of the window at the stars. The asteroid rotated end over end every two hours and the wheeling of the stars could be seen traversing from one side of the window to the other. She closed her eyes and fell asleep.

Zania awoke with a dry throat and in need of a drink. Glancing at the clock beside her, she saw it was almost four in the morning, two hours earlier than she normally woke up.

The scene outside the window was unchanged as the station, being on the dark side of the asteroid, was perpetually in darkness except for the weak starlight that sometimes reflected on a smooth surface of rock.

Zania turned on the light and reached for the glass of water she always kept by the bed. It was empty.

"Damn," she murmured.

Slipping quietly out of bed, she picked up the glass and made her way barefoot to the kitchen. As she passed the communication room, she was surprised to see Darl huddled over one of the video communicators. He was speaking in a low voice in a language she didn’t understand. She almost called out to him but something about his furtive attitude made her stop.

Darl suddenly switched off the communicator and stood up. Panicking, Zania ran to the kitchen and hid behind the refrigerator. Peeping from her concealed position, she watched as Darl emerged from the communication room and, after briefly looking around, made his way back to his room.

Zania, her heart pounding, waited a full minute before filling her glass from the faucet and tiptoeing back to her bedroom. She sat on her bed and sipped the water, deep in thought.

What was Darl up to? He never got up before she did.

Everyone spoke in Unispeak these days but he had been speaking a language unknown to her. She made up her mind to tell Andy what she had seen. She would have to warn him without Darl knowing.

She lay back on her bed and thought about Andy. He was stocky and physically strong. Compared to him, Darl was taller but not as muscular although she had no doubt he was tough. The knowledge that Andy was present on the asteroid comforted her. Although she had never liked Darl, she never before had a reason to fear him. Now she was afraid and didn’t know why.

Zania had showered and dressed in her overalls by the time she heard Andy and Darl moving around the station.

She checked out herself in the mirror and applied a spray of daytime perfume called "Heaven" to her wrists. Satisfied, she went to the kitchen, chose ham and scrambled eggs for her breakfast and heated it in the microwave.

She was just finishing her coffee when the men came in. Both bid her good morning and chose their meals.

"You look different," said Darl as he sat down to eat. Zania couldn’t tell whether he approved or not.

"She looks wonderful," exclaimed Andy giving her a flashing smile

"Thank you," she replied smiling back at him.

"What’s that smell?" asked Darl.

"That, my friend, is perfume," said Andy, beaming. "Worn by women, designed to make a man take notice and to set his soul on fire."

Zania felt her cheeks redden. She hadn’t expected Andy to say anything like that. She almost wished she hadn’t put any on.

"Yeah, but only I’ll be smelling it all day long," she said. "And on the other side of this rock," she added meaningfully.

"Yes. That’s a shame. But we have our orders, Zania."

Andy’s apologetic tone sounded sincere and Zania knew that Minerals would expect their orders to be carried out precisely as they wanted.


"I know. But I still thinks it’s unfair," she replied, smiling resignedly.

Darl got up and placed his plate and mug in the dishwasher and Andy immediately did the same. Zania dawdled around, hoping Darl would leave Andy and she alone long enough for her to tell him what she had seen Darl doing that morning. As they began putting on their spacesuits, she knew there would be no chance of that yet. She put her own suit on and followed them out the airlock.

The two men climbed into their buggies and firing them up, they moved away.

Zania watched them disappear behind a tall, jagged part of the asteroid, then climbed into her buggy.

The eight-wheel drive and swiveled suspension rode over the jagged, uneven surface easily as she made her way past the sheds housing the power and recycling units at the rear of the station. She switched on the tracer that would direct her to the station when she wanted to return. Four cameras mounted on top of the time still lay where she had left them.

Now she had the use of a buggy, she would not have to hand drill the holes for the explosives and she could take core samples by drilling directly into the asteroids surface. Minerals only supplied buggy recorded the scene and fed the information to a computer on the console in front of her. She would be able to use the maps to return to any place.


The drill and special explosives buggies on satellites and very large asteroids.

Zania spent three hours getting six core samples before she found one with a vein of RN84/210. The vein, recognizable by its pearly color, varied in depth from half a millimeter to one millimeter. The depth was encouraging but she had no idea how wide or how long the vein would prove to be. The find excited her. She had expected to spend several days drilling and blasting before finding the mineral. She still had to make tests to be sure it was RN84/210 and not just a similar looking mineral but she felt confident.

Zania loaded the sample onto the buggy and made her way back to the station. Andy and Darl were already back and inside the station as she expected. Naronite was easily accessible and, so far, she and Darl had only found it at one place on the asteroid.

Their buggies were parked close to the airlock. Carrying her sample in her arms, she glanced into the buggies and saw they were both well loaded with ore.

Once inside the station, Zania removed her spacesuit and went to the laboratory with her sample. Darl was using the crusher to reduce the ore to a powder while Andy was sitting at a bench looking into a microscope.

Beside the bench were two bins. The larger one was almost full of crushed ore and the other contained a small amount of bluish powder. Both men looked up as she happily placed her sample on the bench.

"I found a sample after only six attempts," she said excitedly.

"Good for you," replied Andy and returned his attention to his microscope. Darl, surprisingly, came over and picked up the cylinder, examined it and nodded, then replaced it before returning to the crusher.

"Well, don’t get too ecstatic," Zania said. "I’m starving. Want something to eat?"

"We’ve eaten," said Darl. Andy placed some ore into the larger bin and said nothing.

Her enthusiasm deflated, Zania ate her meal alone and in silence. It was obvious that her find, RN84/210, was nowhere near as important as Darl’s. Andy’s indifference hurt her more than she liked to admit. Even Darl had shown more interest in her success than Andy had.

She cleared the table and returned to the lab. Darl was still crushing ore and Andy appeared to have not moved from the microscope.

Picking up her sample, Zania took it to a laser cutter on another bench. Donning a face shield and gloves, she carefully cut the section of RN84/210 from the cylinder of ore.

"When can I use the crusher?" she asked Darl.

"Not until we have finished," Andy answered before Darl could. "Probably not until tomorrow."

Darl looked at her and simply shrugged.

"Fine," she said, "I’m going to my room." She placed the sliver of ore she had cut from the cylinder in a container, put it in a drawer and left the lab.

Zania sat on her bed with her hands clasped in her lap as tears welled up in her eyes. She had thought her work would have been more enjoyable with Andy on the asteroid but if this was going to be a typical day, she would be more depressed than before. She felt unwanted and a nuisance. Andy, apart from the occasional bright comments, was treating her as Darl had done. As far as he was concerned, she and her find were unimportant. He was only interested in Naronite.

She lay down and wept quietly.

 

Zenith Chapter 05

Zania had decided not to join Andy and Darl to watch a video program and stayed in her room after eating dinner. She had tried reading a book but she was too upset to concentrate. Andy had insisted on working until the Naronite had been processed and the men didn’t finish until late. She wondered how Darl felt about that. He had always made sure that he didn’t work longer than the number of hours Minerals required each day. She had learned that from the two loads of Naronite they had mined, that would have weighed at least five hundred kilograms on Earth, Andy had extracted about fifty grams of the trace element. Zania estimated that at that rate they would get about four kilograms in three months.

Darl never left them alone long enough for her to tell Andy about his secretly communicating with someone. Twice she attempted to let Andy know she wanted to talk to him privately but he failed to take the hint. The second time she had the feeling that Andy thought she was hitting on him. That was when she decided not to mention it and wait to see what happened.

The following morning, Zania stayed behind when Andy and Darl left to get more Naronite. Going into the lab she opened the drawer to get the sample of RN84/210 she had cut from the core cylinder. On opening the container, she was surprised to see it had already been crushed to powder. Andy or Darl must have done it for her the night before.

It must have been Andy, she thought. Darl wouldn’t want to work any later than necessary.

She carried out a series of tests to make sure that the sample contained RN84/210 and was pleased when the results were positive. After grading the quality, she entered the report into the computer, then celebrated by having a coffee. If the vein were a large one, then she wouldn’t have to waste time drilling for more. Her next task will be to use the explosives to see how extensive the vein ran. She donned her suit and went out of the station.

Zania arrived at the site where she had found the vein and drilled a hole for the charge. According to the core she had taken, the vein was sixteen centimeters below the surface. She drilled twenty centimeters deep. The explosives were specially designed for use on asteroids and small satellites. The explosion expanded at an extremely slow rate so that debris wouldn’t be hurled into space but powerful enough to break the rock into small enough pieces to handle.

She placed the charge and backed the buggy up fifty feet before detonating the explosive. An area of about five feet in diameter jumped up and then settled again. It was almost like an implosion than an explosion. She waited for the regulation three minutes before she approached the scene again.

Zania was glad Andy had brought the buggies. Without the buggy she would have had to clear the first sixteen centimeters by hand to get to the level of the vein. Although it would have taken little effort, it would have been time consuming. She lowered the mechanical shovel and quickly cleared the top layer of rocks then, jumping down, she removed the rest by hand.

She examined each piece carefully, discarding any that had no sign of the pearly vein and putting aside any that had. Zania discovered the vein was six inches wide and eighteen inches long. It varied in thickness from a millimeter to three millimeters at one point.

Zania felt disappointment. It wasn’t exactly the great find she had hoped for but she knew there could be a much larger vein somewhere in the area. She would have to continue with the drilling until she found it.

Zania returned to the station with her find in the buggy. As she expected, Andy and Darl were back. She knew she would have to wait until they had finished processing their finds before she would be permitted to use the crusher. She contemplated going back to the site and commencing drilling again but decided it was getting too late.

Andy and Darl were inside the lab. As it was the day before, Darl was doing the crushing while Andy separated the trace he wanted. She noticed they had used the laser cutter to cut away the unwanted material as she had done with the core cylinder. It had surprised her that they hadn’t done that the previous day. It would have been the first thing Darl would have done.

Zania wondered if Darl was deliberately delaying the processing of the Naronite. Andy, although he seemed to know what he was doing, he looked out of place in a laboratory. His rugged appearance suggested he was more at home outside in the open than inside.

"Thanks for crushing my sample for me," she said to Andy. He looked up with a puzzled look on his face.

"What?" he asked.

"My sample. Thanks for crushing it."

"I crushed it last night before I cleaned up," admitted Darl. "I thought it might save you a bit of time."

"Oh. Thanks," said Zania. Why would he do that? she thought. Darl had never done anything like that before. He had never even offered her any help in the past. Did he know I had seen him and was trying to get into my good books?

Zania made herself some coffee and sipped it while watching Andy and Darl work. For all Andy’s secrecy, it was now apparent to both Darl and herself that the trace element he was looking for and separating was the small streaks of blue in the Naronite ore. The small veins were few are far apart. They were too small to see without slicing the rock with the laser cutter then crushing the ore to separate it.

"Wouldn’t it be quicker if all three of us worked on that?" Zania asked. "One of us to do the cutting, another the crushing and Andy can do the separating."

"Didn’t Minerals say they wanted your RN84/210 as well?" asked Darl. "I think you should mine that and separate it after you have a good load stacked up."

"He doesn’t want to share his bonus with you," laughed Andy.

The bonus. Zania had no doubt Darl’s bonus would be a huge one from all the interest Minerals was showing in the Naronite. So why did he seem to be delaying the production of Naronite? It didn’t make sense to her.

"Fine. I’ll leave you to get on with it, then," she retorted. She tossed her head and stormed her way to her room muttering, "I hate men!"

 

Zenith Chapter 06

Zania spent the next three days drilling core samples and mapping her finds. On the third day one core revealed a vein five millimeters thick. It was her best find yet. She made several smaller drillings around it to ascertain the size of the vein. It was encouraging to find it was five feet long and three feet wide. Larger than she ever hoped for.

Zania wondered what her bonus would be. She knew it would be nothing like the bonus Darl would get as Minerals was more interested in his find. However they had said they wanted as much of RN84/210 as possible so they were interested to an extent. Zania had no idea whether the bonuses were granted according to volume or weight. RN84/210 was heavier than RL28/301. The vein she had just found would produce more in volume than Andy and Darl had of the trace element to date. There was a good chance her discovery could be more profitable than Darl’s.

Her elation drove Zania to greater efforts to find more veins and she worked methodically in an ever-widening circle. It needed patience and perseverance to continue the core drilling. Unlike a world with an atmosphere and seasons, the asteroid had no definite strata. It was a solid rock that also contained various minerals scattered throughout its composition. Most of the finds were common material such as iron and some copper. At one time, she and Darl had found a trace of silver that had excited them but they had not found any since.

By the time the third days work was ending, Zania had found two smaller veins before deciding she had done enough drilling. The next day she would begin mining her finds. She returned to the station very satisfied with her accomplishments.

Zania found Andy and Darl in the lab as she expected. As she entered, Andy glanced up.

"You’re late today, Zania. Any luck?" he asked.

His question surprised her. He hadn’t shown any interest in what she did during the day and she sensed he was feeling in a good mood. She wondered why.

"I found a good vein today," she informed him. "Biggest yet."

"Good for you," replied Andy. He flicked a switch and the hum of the vibrator plates filled the room. Zania watched as the crushed and powdered ore on the plates began separating into a pattern. Everything vibrated at a certain frequency. Once you have found the frequency that caused a component to vibrate, the plates would separate that component from the others. A small amount of the blue trace began to form into star-like shapes in the center of the plates while the bulk of the ore formed a different pattern surrounding them.

Andy took a small sample of the blue trace and examined it under the microscope. He grunted with satisfaction and turned the vibrator plates off.

"That’s it for today," he announced as he collected the trace element and placed it in a container. The rest of the Naronite he discarded into a bin.

"Tomorrow, I’m taking what we’ve got to Earth," he said. "Zania, you’ll be able to use the lab anytime you want for a few days."

Andy turned to Darl. "You can help Zania or stockpile more Naronite for when I get back."

Zania stared at Andy in disbelief. He hadn’t given Darl or herself any indication that he would be returning to Earth so soon. He and Darl had occupied the lab almost continually and she had only been able to separate a little of RN84/210.

"What about my find, the RN84/210?" she asked. "I thought you said Minerals wanted as much of that as possible too."

"They do but we’ve got almost three months to get that," he replied. He tapped the container holding the blue trace. "This is what they really want in a hurry."

He sauntered toward the lab door. "Coffee, anyone?" he asked over his shoulder as he went out. Darl glanced at Zania and followed Andy. His face as expressionless as always.

Zania stared at Darl’s retreating back wishing she could read his mind. He rarely volunteered any information or revealed any personal thoughts. When he spoke, it was always in short, to the point sentences or to briefly answer a question. She thought he was almost robotic.

Maybe he is a robot; she mused, then immediately dismissed the thought as ridiculous. She recalled how she had seen him huddled over the communicator and the way he was whispering in some foreign language. His attitude then was the nearest to a human’s she had ever seen him in. She wondered whom he had called and why he was so secretive about it. Had he done it in full view of Andy and her, they wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

Her thoughts turned to Andy. When they had met on Starburst Station, he had been charming and she liked him immediately, but since his arrival on the asteroid, he had changed. He was obsessed with RL28/301. He had said Minerals had named it Naronite but she was sure it was the blue trace element that was really what they called Naronite. The rest he had just discarded as though it was useless.

Both men seemed determined to keep her in ignorance of the Naronite. Any display of interest on her part was met with excuses or suggestions that she concentrated on RN84/210. Shrugging, she followed Darl.

Andy was already sipping a coffee as she entered the kitchen. Darl was just getting his. When he saw her, he offered it to her and poured another for himself. She accepted it and sat down. An idea was forming in her head and she sneaked a peek at Andy.

"Why don’t you take Darl with you?" she asked. "He hasn’t had a break for ages."

There was a brief silence before Andy replied.

"I can’t. I have things to do in Maliska before going on to Earth," he said apologetically. "There won’t be much time for recreation."

Zania glanced at Darl but he just sat down without saying a word. He dipped a cookie into his coffee and munched it as though he hadn’t heard. She wondered if he got any pleasure from the taste of food.

Does he get pleasure out of anything? she thought.

Zania had always liked her work and didn’t mind the long periods of being alone but she always felt she was part of a team. Even before Andy arrived, she still felt she was working with Darl as a partner although there was little verbal communication. Since Andy came and took over, she was being alienated from them. She was convinced they would prefer she wasn’t there at all.

But why? I’m not a threat to either of them. A lump came into her throat as a feeling of loneliness washed over her. Don’t show them you are upset, she admonished herself. She turned away and left the kitchen. She made her way to her room. There she could be alone to cry.

 

Zenith 07

 

Zania awoke to the sounds of movements in the station. She glancing at the clock and saw it was two hours earlier than either Darl or Andy usually got up. She slipped on a robe and ventured outside her room. The sounds were coming from the kitchen. Bare-footed, she tiptoed to the kitchen to see who was up so earlier and found Andy eating breakfast. He looked up at her just as his mouth engulfed a spoonful of cereals and raised his hand in a gesture that was supposed to mean, "Good morning."

"Sorry. Did I wake you?" he asked apologetically when he had swallowed the cereal.

"No. I’m always awake in the middle of the night," she said sarcastically. "Of course you woke me up. You were making enough noise to wake the dead."

"Yeah, I know. I tripped over a chair and nearly fell flat on my face," he explained with a grin. "Want some coffee?"

"You finish feeding your face," she replied, "I’ll get it." The coffee was hot and Zania noticed he had already had a mug full on the table.

"So. Why are you up so early?" she asked, pulling up a chair to the table and sitting down.

"I want to get going as early as possible," he explained, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin. "A long day ahead."

Andy discarded the napkin, picked up his coffee and placed his elbows on the table. As he sipped the coffee, he studied her face. His dark eyes met hers and seemed to look deep into her soul. She returned his steady gaze for a while but had to look away. When she looked back, his eyes were on her neckline. Self-consciously, she drew the robe closer, covering her cleavage. She was suddenly very aware she was naked beneath the robe. He smiled at her modest action and she felt herself blushing.

"You’re a very attractive woman, Zania," he said easily.

Zania gave him an embarrassed smile. This was the Andy she knew before. His charm and easy way of talking that made her like him at Starburst Station and on the shuttle. How can he be so different when working?" she wondered. Almost as though reading her mind, he spoke again.

"Look, I’m sorry if I’ve been abrupt with you these last few days," he said. "But the pressure to get as much Naronite as quickly as possible has not been easy."

"That’s okay," she replied, dismissing his apology with a flick of her hand. "Naronite is the blue trace, isn’t it? Not the ore from which it came."

Andy paused before answering her. "I suppose it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Yes. It is the trace."

"What’s so special about it," asked Zania.

"That, I don’t know. It looks harmless enough and I can’t see what use it can be to anyone."

"Maybe it’s because it’s rare and therefore valuable?"

Andy shrugged. "Could be. Maybe they’ll compress it and make gems out of it." He rose from the table and gathered the dishes ending any further discussion of the Naronite. "I’ve got to get ready to leave."

Zania also stood up. "I’ll get dressed," she said. She returned to her room and quickly dressed into her working overalls. By the time she got back, Andy had the container with the Naronite by the airlock and was reaching for his spacesuit.

"I’ll see you off," said Zania taking her own suit from its locker and putting it on. They went through the airlock together and went to the shuttle.

Andy carefully placed the container of Naronite in the shuttle then turned to her.

"I’ll see you in a few days," he said. He looked around, his headlamp sweeping the bleak surface of the asteroid. Then he looked up at the black space speckled with stars above their heads.

"You know. Up there, there’s billions, trillions of beings and they don’t even know this asteroid is here," he chuckled. "We are at the zenith of no man’s space."

Zania gazed up at the points of light relieving the blackness. The words of an ancient song came to her mind. A song still sung by children on Earth. "Twinkle, twinkle little star…" The stars she was looking at didn’t twinkle. There was no atmosphere on the asteroid. Nothing to cause refraction and make them flicker. Each one was a sun or a galaxy. How many had planets that were inhabited and yet to be discovered?

The sudden brightness of the shuttles cabin lights being turned on broke her reverie. Andy had climbed into the craft and was preparing to fire up the engines.

"Better stand clear." The sound of his voice came through the speakers in her helmet. She looked at him. His head was turned toward her but his face was in shadow except for the tip of his nose. Raising her hand, she waved and turned away. A few hops and she were far enough not to be in the way when he shuttle lifted off.

"You take care," she said as the shuttle slowly rose several feet and then swung around with its nose pointing away from her.

"You too," he said. "Bye!"

The shuttle accelerated, arcing up into space. She watched the blue glow of the exhaust until it was out of sight. Why do I feel so sad? He’ll be back in a few days.

She turned to go back to the station and saw Darl’s silhouette at a window. How long has he been there? She wondered. It’s still early for him to be up.

She returned to the station and entered the airlock where Darl was waiting with a mug of steaming coffee in his hand.

"He left early," he said as she put her suit away in its locker.

"He said he had a long day ahead of him," she replied. "He’d have gone without us knowing if he hadn’t made so much noise and woke me up."

She went to the kitchen. Darl followed her.

"Have you had breakfast yet?" she asked.

"No. I’ll have cereals and fruit," he replied. She turned to him and waited a moment but knew he wouldn’t say, "Please."

She prepared cereals and fruit for them both and sat down at the table where Darl was already sitting. He put his coffee down and picking up a spoon began eating. One day he may surprise me and say, "Thank you" thought Zania.

"So what are you going to do today?" she asked. Andy had given him the choice of stockpiling Naronite or helping her.

"I’ll be working with you," he replied with his mouth full of fruit.

Zania was sure that his choice was not for her benefit. RN84/210 was her find. The Naronite was his find and it would be in his own interest to get as much of that as he could to increase his bonus. She was convinced he was deliberately delaying the production of Naronite as much as he could but couldn’t understand why. Zania pondered whether to ask him outright if he was but remembered the secret communication he had made. She decided to say nothing until Andy returned. For the first time since working with Darl, she was afraid of him.

 

Zenith 008

The following morning, the atmosphere was strained while Zania and Darl ate breakfast. Darl acted as though nothing had happened but Zania’s feelings of fear and uncertainty would not leave her.

She had lain in bed the previous night trying to understand what was going on. The more she thought about it, the more confused she became. Questions sprang to her mind only to be left unanswered. What was Darl trying to conceal? Who was he communicating with secretly? Why was he trying to delay production of Naronite? Why was Minerals so interested in Naronite that even Andy wasn’t told? Why did Andy seem to have a dual personality? One when he was working and another when he wasn’t? These questions had gone through her mind several times in the last few days but now another, more serious question, plagued her. Was she in physical danger from Darl? She had no means of contacting anyone for help now that Darl had disabled the communicator.

"We’ll separate the ore today." Darl’s sudden announcement startled Zania. While Andy was gone, Darl was her superior and she had no choice but to agree.

"We’ve enough to keep going all day," she replied, trying to sound calm.

Darl stood up, gathered his dishes and disposed of them. "We’ll start when you’re ready," he said and left the kitchen.

Zania deliberately took her time finishing her meal and having a second mug of coffee. While she sipped the hot coffee, her mind raced, trying to work out a plan how to warn Andy when he returned. He hadn’t said exactly how long he would be gone. He could arrive any day and at any time of the day. She realised that Darl could just as easily be the first to see him arrive.

She cleared the table and left the kitchen to join Darl in the lab. As she passed the communication room, she noticed the communicator indication light was on. Darl had replaced the chip. Has he been in contact with someone? she wondered. I must keep an eye on him.

Darl had already begun cutting the RN84/210 from the waste ore when she entered the lab. She collected what he had put aside and began crushing it to powder. Darl completely ignored her. As she worked, her mind still went over the questions that trouble her. After thirty minutes she had made up her mind to confront him.

"Darl, why don’t you want me to use the communicator?" she asked as she turned to face him.

Darl stopped working and looked at her directly in the eyes. His face was expressionless as always but she knew he was thinking how to answer. Finally he spoke.

"I have my own reasons."

Darl’s negative reply frustrated Zania all the more but made her determined to pursue the issue.

"I saw you talking to someone the other day in a foreign language," she said. "Who were you talking to?"

Darl didn’t stop working but there was a pause before he replied.

"A friend of mine."

"But why the secrecy?" persisted Zania.

"It was a private conversation."

"What are you afraid I might find out? Why stop me using the communicator?"

"I told you. I have my reasons."

"I’m going to tell Andy when he gets back." Zania retorted, defiantly.

Darl stopped working. His dark eyes looked deeply into Zania’s as he straightened up.

"What if he doesn’t come back?"

Zania felt as though an icy cold hand had closed over her heart. The blood drained from her face as her mind digested Darl’s words. What had he done? Had he tampered with the shuttle? Had he spoken to anyone to prevent Andy from returning? Was Andy in danger? I have to warn Minerals somehow. The thoughts raced through her mind. She breathed in deeply to compose herself.

"Why wouldn’t he come back?" she asked. "He said he would only be gone a few days."

"We’ll see if he does," replied Darl. "Here’s some more to crush."

Zania stood with her hands on her hips. "I demand to know what’s going on!" she said defiantly. "I want to know now!" Zania’s raised voice and defiance was lost on Darl.

"All in good time," was his simple, calm and emotionless answer. "Shall I do the crushing while you separate?"

Zania’s inner fear of Darl was leaving her as her frustration mounted. Darl’s total lack of emotion, although maddening, no longer inspired the anxiety she felt before. He had not attempted to harm her and he didn’t show any desire to do so.

"You’re a bastard, Darl!" She surprised herself at her exclamation. Although she disliked him, she had never said anything disrespectful to him before.

"My parentage has been proven by the Federation." Zania studied his eyes to see if there were any sign of humour or anger in them but they revealed nothing.

Darl switched on the vibrator plates and put some of the crushed ore on them. He adjusted the frequency and stood back.

"I’ll do the separating," he said.

Zania placed more ore in the crusher.

"Why are you helping me with this when you could be stockpiling your precious Naronite?"

"I thought you’d appreciate some help."

"Don’t you want to get as much bonus as you can before the shift ends?"

"There’s plenty of time left for that."

"If Andy doesn’t come back you won’t get any more." Zania knew it was a feeble attempt to get back to the subject of Andy and his return but it was all she could think of. She was also enjoying the exchange she was having with Darl. She had never known him to be so talkative.

"I can separate it alone," replied Darl. His voice indicated his confidence. He switched off the vibrators and scooped the RN84/210 into a container. "Shall we get on with this?" The tone of his question implied that he didn’t want to continue the discussion.

Zania however was persistent. "Did Andy say he wasn’t coming back?"

"No. He hasn’t said a word to me."

Zania’s frustration was becoming harder to contain. She turned to Darl and grabbing his arm pulled him away from the vibrators.

"Why do you have to be so damn mysterious?" she demanded. "Why can’t we be like normal colleagues and talk to each other?"

Darl’s expressionless eyes met hers. "We are talking."

"Yes! You’ve said more in this last half hour than you’ve said in the past three weeks," she said throwing her hands in the air. "Now you want to stop talking again."

Darl cleaned the vibrator plates and placed more ore on them without replying. After switching them on, he stood staring silently at the patterns forming on them. Zania uttered a sound of disgust and returned to crushing the ore.

"You like Andy, don’t you?" The query came after several minutes of silent working and startled Zania. She stopped working and turned to face Darl unable to hide the surprise on her face. It was so unlike Darl to ask such a thing. Her expression slowly changed as she pondered the question. Had she been asked when she first met Andy, she would have answered with an affirmative. Now, after working and living with him in the station, she was unsure. He seemed to have a split personality and she didn’t really know him well enough yet to give an honest reply.

"I don’t know. Sometimes I think I do and others I don’t," she replied. "Why do you ask?"

The silence that followed was so long that Zania assumed Darl wasn’t going to answer. She was about to turn back to her work when Darl replied.

"I don’t trust him."

"What?" The incredulous look on Zania’s face was unmistakable. Did she hear right? Darl had been acting suspiciously and he was saying he didn’t trust Andy!

"You can’t be serious! Minerals sent him here!"

"Forget what I said."

"No! Why don’t you trust him?"

"It doesn’t matter."

"It matters to me! We can contact Minerals and check his credentials," retorted Zania.

"You won’t get anything from them."

"Why not?"

"They’ll tell you his credentials are fine."

How do you know? Have you checked?"

"I just know. Let’s forget it."

No amount of questioning or goading would make Darl say anything more. Zania knew that once his mind was made up, nothing would change it. They continued working with only an occasional comment exchanged between them. Questions again filled Zania’s mind as she worked. What did Darl know about Andy? Was Darl trying to turn her against him? Who could she trust? Was she in any danger?

At the end of the day, Zania retired to her room and lay thinking for a very long time before finally sleeping.

 

Zenith 009

 

Darl handed Zania her air tank and helped her put it on over her spacesuit, then strapped his own on. He pressed the button and the airlock swished open. Courteously, he stepped aside allowing her to enter the airlock.

"I forgot something," he said. "I’ll meet you at the buggies in a minute."

The inner door swished closed and a moment later the outer door opened. Zania stepped out onto the airless asteroid. The outer door closed behind her. Turning to check that the indicator light showed the outer door had closed properly, she saw the red light that indicated the inner door was open was blinking. Either Darl was entering the airlock or something was wrong. She waited a minute for the red light to go out that would show Darl had closed the door. It remained flashing.

Zania moved to one side to peer into a window. Darl appeared at the window without his suit on. He was grinning at her. She had never seen Darl smile let alone grin. He raised his hand and waved to her.

"Darl! What are you doing?" demanded Zania.

Darl spread his hands and then touched his ears and shook his head. He was indicating that he couldn’t hear her. He looked like he was laughing. Zania pointed to the airlock.

"Close the inner door!" she shouted.

He looked in the direction she was pointing and nodded gleefully. He then proceeded to do a jig as Zania stared incredulously at him.

"The door! Damn you!" she shouted, although she knew he couldn’t hear her.

Darl stopped jigging and breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly as though enjoying the air entering his lungs.

Air! Zania looked at the gauge that showed how much air she had in her tank. It was almost empty! Panic swept over her as she realised Darl was trying to kill her. She pounded the window with her fists screaming at Darl to let her inside the station only to see him grinning and waving to her. Zania gasped and clutched her throat as the last of the air entered her lungs.

Zania’s eyes snapped open and she sat up with a start and gasping for breath, her body covered in a cold sweat. She was in bed. It had been a dream, a horrible nightmare.

When her breathing returned to normal, she arose from her bed and crept to the door. Opening it just a crack, she peered out just in time to see Darl emerge from the communications room. He strode purposefully to Andy’s room and went inside. Zania was tempted to see what he was doing in Andy’s room but the dream she had was too vivid and she didn’t have the nerve.

Several minutes later Darl came out of Andy’s room and paused. He appeared to be deep in thought as he stood staring at the floor for a full minute before striding back to the communications room. Zania’s curiosity overcame her nerves and she slipped a robe on and crept to see what Darl was doing. He hadn’t closed the door and she peeped in. She heard him urgently conversing in a language she had never heard before. The female voice that answered him had an almost musical accent and sounded equally urgent. Zania crept away and returned to her room.

She showered and dressed quickly and went to the kitchen to get coffee and breakfast. This time, as she passed the communications room, she didn’t try to conceal herself. Darl looked up as she paused at the door. The male voice was still talking.

"I’m making coffee and breakfast," she announced to Darl. "Do you want any?"

Darl said something to the screen then answered Zania.

"Coffee would be good."

Zania shrugged and went to make the coffee. Before she had poured it, Darl entered the kitchen.

"Who were you talking to?" asked Zania without expecting him to tell her.

"A friend," replied Darl.

"Dykorian?"

"No. Zakarian."

Zania showed surprise. Zakar was one of the latest planets to join the Federation. Zakarians were a matriarchal race. The males were of short heavy build with long flowing hair while the females were tall and slim and bald. Zania understood that the females were completely hairless. They were polygamous with the females having two or three mates. The males were the workers while the females held all responsible positions including governing their planet.

"You have a Zakarian friend?"

"More of an associate than a friend."

"How did you meet her?"

Darl paused, as he was about to place his breakfast in the microwave and turned to face Zania.

"Who said it was a female?"

"It was a female voice talking to you," replied Zania.

Darl returned to heating his meal without saying anything further.

"So, how did you meet her?" Zania persisted.

Darl retrieved his meal and sat down to eat.

"That doesn’t matter." He said it with finality that, from experience, Zania knew he would not speak about it again and dropped the subject.

 

Zania was the first to see the shuttle circling the asteroid to land. She and Darl were drilling cores for RN84/210 when she happened to look up and see it approaching. Her heart skipped a beat as she saw the markings showed it was Andy’s shuttle. Her fears that Darl or his accomplices had done something to harm Andy vanished.

"Andy’s back!" she called impulsively to Darl and, unshackling the drill bit she was using, she steered her buggy toward the station to meet Andy. The buggy bucked and bounced over the rough surface but Zania didn’t slow down. She wanted to tell Andy all she had found out before Darl could interfere. She glanced at the screen that showed the rear view but Darl was till working. Maybe he didn’t hear me, she thought.

Andy was just alighting from the shuttle when Zania arrived to greet him.

"I’m so glad you are safe, Andy," she blurted.

"Why shouldn’t I be," Andy asked.

Zania switched the communicator to another channel, showed Andy the frequency, indicating that Andy should do the same. She saw him look at her curiously before switching to the same channel.

She told him about Darl’s secret messages and what Darl had said about Andy might not be returning. She also told him that Darl had been into his room and was looking for something.

Andy listened, only interrupting when she began to speak incoherently in her excitement. When she had finished, his face was grim. He turned back to the shuttle and rummaged around for a moment. When he turned back, Zania saw he held a hand blaster.

"Don’t worry, Zania," he said. "I couldn’t tell you this before but I am a special agent for Minerals. They suspect Darl is a spy for an organization that wants to overthrow the Federation."

"They must be the Zakarians," exclaimed Zania. "He said he had a Zakarian friend."

"The Amazons?" asked Andy thoughtfully as he tucked the blaster into a bag.

A flash of light from the headlamps of Darl’s buggy stopped any further conversation and both, Zania and Andy switched back to the channel for general communication.

Darl turned to them briefly then made his way to the airlock with his arms loaded with core cylinders. As he walked, his voice came over the communicators.

"I’ve been trying to call you," he said.

"We were talking privately," answered Andy. "Zania missed me."

Darl disappeared into the airlock without replying. By the time Zania and Andy had entered the airlock and put away their suits, Darl was in the kitchen calmly sipping coffee. Andy tucked the blaster into his belt at his back. They went into the kitchen together.

"Has Zania filled you in?" asked Darl of Andy.

"Andy’s a special agent for Minerals," said Zania triumphantly before Andy could reply.

"Really?" Darl showed no sign of surprise or alarm. "Why don’t you tell her the truth?"

"What is the truth?" asked Andy.

"You should know."

"From what Zania has told me, you have been acting very suspiciously."

Darl’s eyes flitted from Andy to Zania and back again.

"What do you call "suspicious?"

"Making secret calls."

"There’s no rule prohibiting private calls."

"Searching my room."

"Ah. Yes. I was informed that you had been seen with a blaster. I wanted to check."

"You didn’t find one."

"No. You took it with you. The one you have in your belt."

"He’s a special agent. He’s allowed to carry a blaster," retorted Zania.

"Why don’t you show us your credentials, Andy?" asked Darl.

"I don’t need to show you anything."

"I didn’t think you would." Darl stood up and left the kitchen adding, "We have work to do."

Zania stared incredulously at Andy as he just stood there doing nothing.

"Aren’t you going to arrest him or something?" she whispered fiercely.

"For what? We need proof that he’s a spy."

"Tell Minerals what’s happened," Zania suggested.

"When I’ve seen with my own eyes that he is doing something wrong," Andy assured her. "They won’t take your word for it."

"No. I’m just a hysterical woman!" she snorted and stormed out of the kitchen.

 

Zenith chapter 10

 

The following three weeks were spent with Zania once again working alone collecting core samples of RN84/210 while Andy and Darl continued to collect Naronite. Darl worked as though nothing had happened when Andy arrived back and Andy’s obsession with getting as much Naronite as possible occupied all his time. Zania was the only one that showed any sign of strain with the relationship between herself and her colleagues. She did her best to ignore both men and spent most of her time off work in her room. She almost wished she could be more like Darl and not have or show any emotion.

Andy now carried his blaster openly in a holster at his hip. Zania suspected that he even slept with it under his pillow. His attitude toward her had returned as it was before he had left.

As Zania worked alone drilling and mining she recalled the few minutes of conversation she had with Andy just before he had entered the shuttle a month previously. He had been almost romantic as they gazed up at the stars. She remembered his words. "We are at the zenith of no man’s space," he had said. He was right. No one literally owned the asteroid on which they were based. Maliska, on the edge of the galaxy, was the nearest inhabited planet but had no interest in a rock orbiting the twin suns. Apart from the inhabitants of Maliska, there were no other people, no other inhabited planet, for light-years in all directions.

Zania took advantage of every opportunity to process her finds of RN84/210. This last week her opportunities had been more frequent than before. Andy and Darl were spending more and more time in search of the Naronite ore and coming back with smaller loads each day. She guessed they were close to exhausting all supplies of the ore.

Andy’s frustration first began to surface when he openly accused Darl of concealing the whereabouts of further supplies of Naronite ore after a long day that rewarded them with just three kilos of ore.

"Do you want to do a thorough search of the asteroid tomorrow?" Darl calmly replied to the accusation. His dark eyes looked directly into Andy’s as he spoke but his face showed no sign of anger or guilt at being accused of deceiving him.

Andy attempted to outstare Darl but had to look away first. He turned his head and looked at Zania. "Yes. I’ll take Zania with me tomorrow," he snapped.

"And what do you want me to be doing?" asked Darl.

"You can continue to search for more Naronite in the area we’ve been working."

Zania picked a piece of ore from the pile of waste and examined it thoughtfully. She and Darl knew almost every inch of the asteroid. They had drilled and blasted every place where there was anything of interest. As far as she was aware, the only place where Naronite was found was where Andy and Darl had been working.

"There isn’t any more anywhere on the asteroid," she informed Andy as she reluctantly came to Darl’s defense. "We’d have mapped it if there were."

Andy’s eyes flitted from Zania’s face to the ore in her hand and back again several times. "Dammit!" he exclaimed vehemently as his fist hammered the table. "Then our work here is done!"

"There’s still plenty of RN84/210. It’s harder to find but there’s plenty out there," said Zania.

Andy laughed. "That’s nothing. It’s Naronite that everyone’s interested in."

The ridicule hurt Zania. Andy had insisted she works alone collecting RN84/210 and she had worked hard believing Minerals considered it valuable.

"I thought you said Minerals wanted as much as we could find."

"They do but it’s Naronite they want more urgently."

"You said everyone’s interested in Naronite," interrupted Darl. "Who’s everyone?"

Andy turned to Darl with a frown on his face then, he shrugged. "Minerals. Everyone at Minerals of course."

"So the find is not a secret, then?"

"Secret? Hell, no! Minerals is buzzing with excitement over it!"

"Then let’s dampen their excitement and tell them we have extracted all there is." Darl walked toward the lab door.

"That might not be a good idea," said Andy. "Let’s make sure we have every ounce before we tell them that."

Darl went out of the lab. His voice drifted back to them as he made his way to the communications room.

"Then I’ll just say it’s coming to a close."

Zania stared at Andy. "What if he’s going to contact his Zakarian friends?" she whispered.

Andy drew his blaster. "The Amazons! You could be right. Stay here." He hurried out of the lab in pursuit of Darl.

Zania stayed by the lab door, straining her ears to hear anything that might be said. She could hear Andy’s voice and Darl’s replies but could not hear what was being said. She was suddenly startled by the sound of the blaster being fired. The short sharp whine echoed through the station. Instinctively, she rushed to the communications room. Darl was standing beside the smoking ruins of the communicator. Andy, his blaster in his hand, glanced at Zania as she came in.

"You were right," he said. "He was talking in a foreign language."

"I wasn’t talking to anyone. I was trying to connect to Minerals," denied Darl. "Now Andy has destroyed all means of communication." Even in these circumstances, Darl showed no emotion. He walked past the shocked Zania and simply said, "Coffee, anyone?"

Zania, recovering from the initial shock, fixed Andy with a look of incredibility.

"What did you do that for?" she demanded.

"To stop him talking," replied Andy. "For all we know his friends could be on their way here to take the Naronite from us."

"And we can’t call for help!" Zania went to the still smoking communicator. It was obviously beyond repair. "Might as well join Darl for coffee," she said, resignedly. As she pushed past Andy, she couldn’t help noticing he didn’t seem too worried that the communicator was useless.

Andy followed Zania to the kitchen where Darl was pouring out three mugs of coffee. He took one and sat down at the table and began to sip the steaming fluid. Zania and Andy collected theirs and joined him.

"You realize that one of us is going to be stranded here," Darl said staring into his coffee. "The shuttle can only hold two."

Zania glanced quickly at Andy. She hadn’t thought of the shuttle being only a two-seater. Andy was the qualified pilot so whoever was left behind would be either Darl or herself.

"I’ll inform Minerals of the situation, Darl." replied Andy with a grin. "They’ll come for you in maybe a week."

"If… you inform Minerals," answered Darl slowly and meaningfully.

"Oh, I’ll inform them. They’ll come and arrest you as an industrial spy."

"You have no proof of that," said Darl looking into Zania’s eyes as he spoke.

Zania had the feeling he was talking to her and not Andy. She returned Darl’s gaze, trying to read any hint of expression in his dark brown eyes and face. There was nothing she could recognize. She recalled the conversation they had and Darl saying he didn’t trust Andy. Her mind was confused by the events that had happened so quickly. Andy had said he wanted proof of Darl’s guilt but there was none. There was no rule against making private calls to family and friends and unless Andy could understand the language Darl had spoken, he had no proof that it wasn’t an innocent private call. There was also no proof to backup Darl’s distrust of Andy. Darl’s calmness and complete lack of retaliation also confused her.

Andy added more cream to his coffee then drank it down in one go. "We’ll let Minerals decide if there is any proof," he said. "I’ll load the Naronite into the shuttle," he added as he walked out of the kitchen.

Zania was quick on his heels. "I’ll help you," she said. She wanted to stay close to Andy to make sure he wouldn’t leave the asteroid without her. She helped carry the containers of Naronite to the airlock and they were just taking their suits from the lockers when Darl appeared.

"I’m afraid I can’t allow you to leave," he said in a matter-of-fact voice.

Andy drew his blaster and pointed it at Darl.

"Are you gonna stop us?" Andy said threateningly.

"Yes." Darl turned to Zania. She saw the deep, dark brown of his eyes change to red and then to a bright white. Two streaks of white light shot from them missing her face by an inch or two just as Andy fired his blaster.

Her face filled with horror as she saw Darl’s chest smoldering as the blast melted his synthetic overalls. Then she saw his blackened flesh begin to disintegrate and fall to the floor as he stood there. Stood there! The blast should have hurled him across the room and killed him immediately.

As the charred flesh crumbled away, she saw the dull metallic gray color of Ricarmor, the metal the Federation used as armor plating on their battleships and war machines. Darl was not a humanoid. He was an android. The realization shocked her. Glancing at Andy, she saw he was as shocked as she was. His mouth wide open and his arms hanging at his sides. He held the blaster limply in his right hand.

Andy recovered from the initial shock and brought the blaster up again and fired. In his haste he missed Darl and the beam hit the wall behind him. Again, the white streaks shot from Darl’s eyes. This time they struck the blaster. Andy yelped in pain and dropped the blaster to the floor. Zania saw that part of it had melted.

"You are too careless with that blaster, Andy," said Darl. "If you puncture the walls of the station the air will escape."

"You tried to kill Zania," accused Andy. "You’re an android and tried to kill her!"

"No I didn’t. I destroyed the airlock opening mechanism." Darl pointed toward the airlock. Zania and Andy turned to where Darl was pointing. Where the buttons that opened the airlock were there was a smoking hole.

Darl removed his overalls and began tearing them into strips. "Andy, I’m afraid I’m going to have to restrain you for a while. I suggest you don’t resist." He picked up the useless blaster and effortlessly bent the hardened steel with his hands. It was a demonstration of his immense strength.

"It will be less painful and much more dignified if you allowed yourself to be tied up." Darl tossed the strips of his overalls to Zania. "Zania, please tie Andy’s hands and feet."

Zania looked at the strips of synthetic material helplessly. She had never tied anyone up before.

Seeing her dilemma, Darl pointed to the lab. "I suggest you tie him to a bench in the laboratory," he said. "Don’t worry. I’ll supervise." He took Andy’s arm in a grip that made Andy wince. "This way, please, Andy."

"You won’t get away with this, Darl," snarled Andy.

"Then you don’t need to worry," replied Darl.

Zania tied Andy to the bench that supported the crusher with Darl watching closely and instructing her how he wanted Andy tied. When she had finished, Darl examined the bonds and nodded with satisfaction.

"Well done," he commended her. "Now, please put on your spacesuit while I collect some things."

"My spacesuit?" Zania looked at him as though she didn’t understand.

"Yes. We are going out."

"But we can’t get out. You’ve destroyed the switches!"

Darl reached into a pocket and produced a small, black object. "A remote control," he explained. "I can get out with this. You didn’t think I would seal myself in here, did you?"

He picked up two containers and took them to the airlock. Placing them on the floor, he returned for more while Zania reluctantly donned her spacesuit. For the thousandth time she wondered what was so special about Naronite that even an android would want to steal it. She glanced at the containers then frowned and looked harder and her eyes widened. Darl had made a mistake. He had brought out the containers of RN84/210 and not the Naronite. She quickly looked away as Darl brought two more containers. She wasn’t going to tell Darl of his error.

"That’s all," Darl announced when he had six of the containers piled by the airlock. "It would be good if you helped me carry them out to the shuttle."

The shuttle! thought Zania. Andy was the pilot! Panic seized her and she felt sick. I’m the one that’s going to be left behind!

Darl used the remote to open the inner door of the airlock and piled the containers inside then turned to Zania.

"You have a choice. You can stay here if you want or you can come with me," he said. "I strongly recommend you come with me."

"Can you pilot a shuttle?"

"Oh yes. I’m a qualified pilot of spacecraft. This little shuttle is nothing."

"Where will you take me?" she asked.

"To Earth where you will be free to go wherever you please," Darl replied.

Darl’s answer confused her. She had assumed he would be going to Zakar with his booty.

"Where are you taking the Naronite?"

"Please, Zania. I’m not a fool and neither are you. You know very well there weren’t six containers of Naronite." Darl picked up two of the containers. "I’m taking these to Minerals."

"But what about the Naronite?" demanded Zania. "It’s your find!"

"Andy can have it all," replied Darl. "Now, are you staying here or coming to Earth?"

For Zania, the thought of returning to Earth again and getting off the asteroid was very appealing.

"I’ll come with you."

"Good. Let’s get these loaded."

Darl hadn’t bothered to put on his spacesuit. He no longer needed to keep up the pretense of being a humanoid. They loaded the six containers into the shuttle together. When they had finished, Darl returned to the station with Zania following him. He went straight to the lab and loosened Andy’s bonds.

"You should be able to free yourself in less than thirty minutes," he told Andy. "I’ll leave the remote so you can leave the station if you want. The food won’t run out before you are rescued."

"Damn you, Darl," shouted Andy as Darl walked out of the lab.

 

Zenith 011

 

Darl proved to be an excellent space vessel pilot. The moment the shuttle lifted off the asteroid he switched on the communicator. Zania heard him talking in the same alien language she heard him speak before and she began to be concerned that she had done the right thing by going with him. She was still uncertain whether Darl was being entirely honest with her. She heard the voice of a woman replying to him. The same voice that Darl claimed was a Zakarian friend.

"Our first stop will be at Outpost, Maliska," Darl said when he had finished talking to the woman. "We will get seats on a vessel to Earth there."

"How do you know seats will be available?" asked Zania. She knew Maliska was mainly a trading planet and passenger flights were few and far between.

"I’ve arranged it all." Darl’s reply was simple. "You can remove your helmet. There’s sufficient air for this flight."

Zania removed her helmet and placed it at her feet.

"You were talking to your Zakarian friend," she said. "I recognized her voice."

"Yes. She will be meeting us on Maliska."

Uncertainty again disturbed Zania’s mind. Darl, as usual, was not being very informative. She had no idea whether she could trust Darl or not. He had not attempted to harm her although, like Andy, she thought he had tried to kill her when he destroyed the airlock opening mechanism. Darl even appeared to be protective of her. He had given her the choice of staying on the asteroid or going with him. She had made that choice herself. She couldn’t understand why Darl appeared to have no interest in the Naronite that Andy was so desperate to mine and collect. Minerals had made it a priority over her own find of RN84/210. They wouldn’t have gone through all the expense of supplying the buggies and shuttles if it wasn’t particularly valuable to them.

 

 

Once Control cleared them for landing, Darl guided the shuttle to one of the terminals and landed. He waited several minutes for the air pressure to equalize with the air of Maliska before opening the canopy of the shuttle. Zania realized this was for her benefit as, being an android, Darl didn’t need air to breathe.

A spaceport official approached them and ushered them toward customs for clearance. Once through customs, Darl led the way out into the arrival lounge of the terminal where a woman stood waiting. Her magnificent beauty stunned Zania. Andy had called the Zakarians "Amazons" and she could see why. The woman was almost seven feet tall and had a regal appearance about her. Her skin was the color of teak. Her shapely body looked faultless beneath a figure-hugging tunic that ended mid-thigh. She wore no footwear. The woman made no attempt to move toward them as Darl approached her with Zania in tow. Zania thought she saw a hint of disapproval in her eyes as they reached her.

The woman’s first words when they reached her were directed to Zania.

"Greetings, woman of Earth," she said in perfect Unispeak. "What do they call you?"

Zania expected Darl to introduce them but he remained silent.

"My name’s Zania," she said humbly. She felt insignificant beside this tall elegant woman whose very presence commanded respect.

"I am Sigali of Zakar. I hope your journey to Earth will be a pleasant one, Zania, although it won’t have the luxuries of a passenger ship." Only then did Sigali turn to Darl. Her eyes glanced at the blackened area where the shot from Andy’s blaster had struck.

"A messy finish, Darl," she said. "You will put on clean clothes before continuing." It wasn’t a query or request.

"Yes, Sigali."

"You have all of the substance?"

"All that has been processed," replied Darl. "There’s more to be mined."

Zania’s confused mind raced. What was Darl up to? Was he working for the Zakarians? Was he a double agent? Where were his loyalties, with Minerals or another organization? He had left the Naronite on the asteroid and taken the lesser valuable RN84/210. Her own loyalty was with Minerals. She decided to say as little as possible in case she blundered.

"Good. You have one Unihour to change and be at gate twenty-six." Sigali turned her head to Zania. "Good bye, Zania. I’m not sure if we will meet again."

"Good bye, Sigali," mumbled Zania. Darl began walking away and Zania followed him.

"Wait!" Sigali’s commanding voice rang out clear. Darl stopped and turned as did Zania.

"Zania is a woman, Darl! Walk with her not in front of her!"

"Of course, Sigali. I was forgetting my role is over." He looked at Zania. "This way, Zania." He fell into step beside her as she went in the direction he indicated. Zania remembered the look of disapproval in Sigali’s eyes when they had first approached her and smiled. So that is what she didn’t like. She thought.

"What did you mean when you said your role is over," Zania asked of Darl.

Darl didn’t reply for a minute and Zania assumed he was going to ignore the question. Then he spoke. His reply only confused her more.

"I was to play the role of a man that regarded females as inferior."

"Why?"

"All will be revealed at the proper time."

 

 

Zania and Darl arrived at gate twenty-six with minutes to spare. Zania noticed a sign that announced the gate was for private spacecraft only. Darl had bought new clothes and had changed. Zania had eaten a meal. She had also freshened herself up during a visit to a restroom.

"What about tickets for the flight?" asked Zania.

"We won’t need any tickets. We’re not travelling by commercial ship."

He produced a pass and they were allowed to go through the gate. As they emerged onto the launching pad, a man in uniform approached them. Zania recognized the uniform as the Federation Space Patrol Police Force.

"Zania Robinson and Darl?" he asked.

"That’s us," answered Darl.

"This way, please." The police officer began walking toward a spacecraft about a hundred yards away emblazoned with the FSPPF emblem.

"Are we being arrested?" demanded Zania. The officer stopped and looked puzzled.

"No Miss Robinson. You will be travelling to Earth with us."

As they got closer to the craft, a cart driven by another police officer passed them. Zania saw the six containers of RN84/210 on the cart. What the hell is going on? She asked herself. She thought Sigali and the Zakarians had the containers. Is the RN84/210 a decoy? She wondered. A theory came to her mind. Perhaps the Zakarians will be raiding the asteroid while the police and Minerals were distracted into believing they had the Naronite. The asteroid belonged to no one and was fair game.

"At the zenith of no man’s space," Andy had said. Andy was still stranded on the asteroid without means of communication. What will happen to him?

Zania and Darl went through the airlock of the spacecraft and were greeted by another officer with "Lieutenant" embroidered on his shirt.

"Welcome aboard, Miss Robinson," he said with a smile. "You, too Darl," he added.

Zania decided on impulse to act.

"Lieutenant! That’s not Naronite in those containers!"

"Naronite, Miss? What’s that?"

"It’s a valuable mineral. Isn’t that what you are supposed to be taking to Earth?"

"Miss, I don’t know what it is that we are supposed to be carrying but this operation has been a success all the way," said the lieutenant. "Now please go through and take your seat."

"But…" The officer interrupted her before she could continue.

"We are just following orders, Miss. As far as I’m concerned, we have what we came for."

Zania stared at him in frustration. Darl was waiting behind her keeping silent.

"Please. Take your seat, Miss," the lieutenant insisted. "We don’t have much time before liftoff."

Zania swept into the craft with obvious annoyance. Inside the passenger cabin were twenty seats. At the far end sat two armed police guards facing the interior. Six other seats were occupied. Zania recognized one of them as the bald man she had seen at Starburst Station. Then she saw the shackles. The six were prisoners. She chose a seat at the rear of the cabin and Darl sat beside her. Five minutes later the spacecraft lifted off from Maliska.

 

 

Zania sat in a deep comfortable armchair in the reception room of the chairman of Minerals reading a magazine. The chairman had summoned her after giving her three weeks paid leave which she had spent with her parents. She had tried to get some information about Andy and the Naronite but all she got were assurances she would be told all in good time. She was unable to penetrate the wall of silence and had given up. Now she flicked disinterestedly through the various magazines placed to help visitors pass the time. She was going through her third magazine when the intercom on the receptionists desk buzzed.

"Mr. Carson will see you now," the receptionist said. She got up from her desk and opened the door of Carson’s office and announced her.

Carson got up and shook Zania’s hand warmly. "Miss Robinson. I’m so sorry to keep you waiting. Please, sit down." He offered her one of two seats in front of Carson’s massive desk. "Is there anything you would like? Coffee, or something?"

Zania shook her head. "No thank you, sir," she replied.

"Darrel. Please call me Darrel," said Carson, "and may I call you Zania?"

"Of course," replied Zania. She had seen pictures of Carson but always suspected they were retouched to make him look younger than he was. Now she saw he was quite young to be a chairman of such an organization as Minerals. She estimated his age to be around fifty. A dusting of gray at his temples gave him the proverbial distinguished look. Little was published about him and he was rarely seen in public. She knew he had been married and had two children. His wife had died of cancer several years previously and he had never remarried.

"I know you have been waiting for an explanation," he said with a smile. "Today you will have all the answers to your questions. We are just waiting for Darl to arrive. In the meantime…"

He picked up a folder and opened it. "Zania, you will be pleased to know that your find of RN84/210 has earned you a great deal of money. You are a very rich woman. Just the six containers of this mineral have earned you a bonus of almost seven million Unicredits."

Zania’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped. She was speechless.

"Six million eight hundred and thirty-two Unicredits to be precise." Darrel closed the folder, leaned his elbows on the desk and folded his fingers. "It is a very rare find and of great interest to the Federation. Our labs have discovered it has properties that must remain secret for the time being. Properties that could be extremely harmful to the Federation if it got into the wrong hands. We are very fortunate that so far no other source of this mineral has yet been found."

Zania felt faint. Such a huge bonus was beyond the wildest dreams of explorers like she was. She need never work again as long as she lived. If she married, had a dozen children, her family would never have to work.

There was a knock and the door opened. "Darl is here Mr. Carson."

"Good! Let him in."

Darl entered, acknowledged Zania and shook Carson’s outstretched hand. Darl sat down in the unoccupied seat beside Zania.

"Now, Zania. You must be very confused at what has been going on. Now we are in a position to tell you everything. It all began just over a year ago. The Federation suspected that there was a syndicate that was robbing them of billions of Unicredits. They suspected the plan was to create a rebel fleet of spacecraft and cause trouble between the inhabited planets and the Federation. As you know, the Federation works very for all planets and is beneficial to the inhabitants.

"Minerals was suspected of aiding the rebellion because valuable rare finds were disappearing and reappearing on worlds in other galaxies so we decided to investigate ourselves. We began to employ androids to work on sites that produced finds that were rare enough to be of interest to the rebels. There are fifty two sites that have at least one android working on them under the guise of humanoids. It was necessary to replace good explorers with the androids. Your previous colleague was one of those replaced. She was well rewarded, I can assure you.

"We had a fortunate breakthrough when we discovered one of our explorers was very much wealthier than he should have been. A plan was made to catch him after he had led us to whoever he was dealing with. It was a waiting game as we needed a discovery that was very rare. The opportunity came when Darl discovered Naronite. That was when we decided to send in Andrew Santilli with instructions to get as much Naronite as possible. He was told it was to remain a secret and no other person apart from you and Darl were to know about it.

Before we could do that, you discovered RN84/210 so there were two rare finds on the asteroid.

"As you know, we never name the discoveries until they are actually being used but in the case of Naronite we made an exception. This was to make it easily recognizable from the usual code numbers like RN84/210.

"Three weeks later the name Naronite came to our ears from an alien from another galaxy visiting Zakar. This alien had been in Maliska during the time Andy was there. When Andy delivered the Naronite to us, there were twenty grams less than the weight Darl advised us would be coming.

"We know you couldn’t have leaked out the secret as Darl had disabled the communicator to prevent you using it.

"We enlisted the help of the Zakarians to catch whoever the alien had contacted and they rounded up fifteen that were members of the rebels. The Zakarians have a unique way of getting information from human and humanoid men but we won’t go into that. We don’t want men flocking there just to be interrogated.

"You were a bit of a problem because of your attraction to Andy. He does have a charm that women might find attractive and our investigations found with his unusual wealth he got and enjoyed the company of beautiful women.

He has been arrested. He was in good health when the police went to get him from the station. Darl was with them at the time he was arrested. Apparently, Andy had hidden all the Naronite somewhere.

"We were glad when the Naronite ore ran out because we had almost completed following up the leads obtained from the captured rebels. These led the Federation to a particular planet in the galaxy of Xentra. The Federation has dispatched a fleet of battleships to this planet and an invasion army."

Carson ordered his receptionist to bring coffee and sandwiches for Zania and himself.

"Any questions?" he asked.

Zania had listened to the explanation without saying a word. There was still one thing that puzzled her.

"What about the Naronite? That’s Darl’s find. That must be worth more than the RN84/210 yet he didn’t bother to bring that as well."

Carson laughed. "The Naronite is worthless. It is very rare inasmuch as there is so little of it but it really has no uses. We knew that all along once we got the first sample."

"Besides, Zania, what use is wealth to an android?" asked Darl. "Our needs are few. However, if you employ me now you are so rich, I will mine the rest of RN84/210 for you and you will get the bonus’ to increase your wealth."

Zania looked at Darl. Did she momentarily see a twinkle in his eye? The hint of a smile? No. Impossible. He is an android and doesn’t show emotions.

The End.

 

 

 

Enter supporting content here