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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
he said as he retrieved his meal from the replicator and set it before him. "My name," he added.
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."
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."
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.
Miss Robinson," he interrupted politely, standing up.
"Then call me
Zania. Andy, I really need a shower before going on to the asteroid."
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.
After a shower
and a massage, Zania arrived refreshed at the departure gate carrying a bag with the well-known "Future Commodities" department
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
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.
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
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."
unusual," exclaimed Zania, "I’ve never had to change shuttles before."
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.
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.
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.
the hurry?" she panted. "We have an hour to drink a cup of coffee."
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.
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.
and sat down just as the bald man stood up and headed for the restrooms.
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.
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.
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.
be delayed and miss the shuttle. It’s none of our business."
The bald man sat
at his table and gulped down his drink. Andy turned to look at him.
see any blaster," he said.
his tunic. I saw it when he put his briefcase down."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
"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."
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?"
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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
"You look different," said Darl as he sat down to eat. Zania couldn’t tell whether he approved or not.
looks wonderful," exclaimed Andy giving her a flashing smile
"Thank you," she replied smiling back at him.
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
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.
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
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
"Well, don’t get too ecstatic," Zania said. "I’m starving. Want something to eat?"
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.
cleared the table and returned to the lab. Darl was still crushing ore and Andy appeared to have not moved from the microscope.
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.
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
She lay down and wept quietly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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
"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
Andy took a small
sample of the blue trace and examined it under the microscope. He grunted with satisfaction and turned the vibrator plates
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.
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
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.
you take Darl with you?" she asked. "He hasn’t had a break for ages."
There was a brief
silence before Andy replied.
I have things to do in Maliska before going on to Earth," he said apologetically. "There won’t be much time for recreation."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
because it’s rare and therefore valuable?"
"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.
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.
placed the container of Naronite in the shuttle then turned to her.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?"
stop working but there was a pause before he replied.
"A friend of mine."
"But why the secrecy?"
"It was a private
"What are you
afraid I might find out? Why stop me using the communicator?"
"I told you. I
have my reasons."
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
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.
he come back?" she asked. "He said he would only be gone a few days."
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?"
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.
a bastard, Darl!" She surprised herself at her exclamation. Although she disliked him, she had never said anything disrespectful
to him before.
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
on the vibrator plates and put some of the crushed ore on them. He adjusted the frequency and stood back.
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."
want to get as much bonus as you can before the shift ends?"
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.
was persistent. "Did Andy say he wasn’t coming back?"
"No. He hasn’t
said a word to me."
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?"
eyes met hers. "We are talking."
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.
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
"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
be serious! Minerals sent him here!"
"Forget what I
"No! Why don’t
you trust him?"
"It matters to
me! We can contact Minerals and check his credentials," retorted Zania.
get anything from them."
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.
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.
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.
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.
coffee and breakfast," she announced to Darl. "Do you want any?"
Darl said something
to the screen then answered Zania.
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
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
"More of an associate
than a friend."
"How did you meet
Darl paused, as
he was about to place his breakfast in the microwave and turned to face Zania.
"Who said it was
"It was a female
voice talking to you," replied Zania.
to heating his meal without saying anything further.
"So, how did you
meet her?" Zania persisted.
his meal and sat down to eat.
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.
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.
glad you are safe, Andy," she blurted.
I be," Andy asked.
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.
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.
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."
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
trying to call you," he said.
"We were talking
privately," answered Andy. "Zania missed me."
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.
a special agent for Minerals," said Zania triumphantly before Andy could reply.
showed no sign of surprise or alarm. "Why don’t you tell her the truth?"
"What is the truth?"
"You should know."
"From what Zania
has told me, you have been acting very suspiciously."
flitted from Andy to Zania and back again.
"What do you call
no rule prohibiting private calls."
"Ah. Yes. I was
informed that you had been seen with a blaster. I wanted to check."
"No. You took
it with you. The one you have in your belt."
special agent. He’s allowed to carry a blaster," retorted Zania.
you show us your credentials, Andy?" asked Darl.
need to show you anything."
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.
you going to arrest him or something?" she whispered fiercely.
"For what? We
need proof that he’s a spy."
what’s happened," Zania suggested.
seen with my own eyes that he is doing something wrong," Andy assured her. "They won’t take your word for it."
just a hysterical woman!" she snorted and stormed out of the kitchen.
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.
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.
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,"
"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.
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."
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!"
still plenty of RN84/210. It’s harder to find but there’s plenty out there," said Zania.
"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?"
no! Minerals is buzzing with excitement over it!"
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.
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."
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?"
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.
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."
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.
Minerals of the situation, Darl." replied Andy with a grin. "They’ll come for you in maybe a week."
you inform Minerals," answered Darl slowly and meaningfully.
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 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
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."
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."
Zania looked at him as though she didn’t understand.
"Yes. We are going
"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.
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."
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
"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.
confused her. She had assumed he would be going to Zakar with his booty.
"Where are you
taking the Naronite?"
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.
get these loaded."
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.
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
"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
it all." Darl’s reply was simple. "You can remove your helmet. There’s sufficient air for this flight."
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."
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.
first words when they reached her were directed to Zania.
of Earth," she said in perfect Unispeak. "What do they call you?"
Darl to introduce them but he remained silent.
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
"A messy finish,
Darl," she said. "You will put on clean clothes before continuing." It wasn’t a query or request.
"You have all
of the substance?"
"All that has
been processed," replied Darl. "There’s more to be mined."
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.
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.
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."
"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.
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.
and Darl?" he asked.
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.
Miss Robinson," he said with a smile. "You, too Darl," he added.
on impulse to act.
not Naronite in those containers!"
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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