Occator Crater on Ceres, courtesy of NASA
“Glaring at the display isn’t going to change the numbers.”
The surveyor settled back into his seat, struggling not to turn his glare on the pilot of the tiny survey vehicle. She was bringing them down inside Occator Crater, inching down slowly to keep from kicking up any planetary debris.
“This thing has already swallowed us,” he muttered. The jagged walls of the crater already rose up out of view, and they hadn’t landed yet.
“You’re not claustrophobic, are you? Bad time for something like that to come up,” the pilot replied, slowing descent so much that the craft seemed to hover in place. “Don’t worry. The numbers never really give a good idea what something will look like, we’ll touch down in a minute.”
Tel shrugged, but didn’t continue distracting Lyra’s attention. He knew life was circumscribed by numbers. They told him when to wake up, when to sleep, how long to sleep, how much to consume…and they controlled his work of determining whether mineral deposits were worth the expense of mining. They also controlled the pilot’s decisions related to speed, angle of descent, and where to land.
He felt the barest shudder as the survey vessel touched down. A small puff of dust welcomed them to the barren dwarf planet. Idly wondering how many specks of material they’d disturbed, he punched the controls for the survey ‘droid. Its operating ID flashed briefly on the screen, followed by its operating condition. All systems go.
“Okay, we’re good to begin,” Lyra told him as she locked down the board. “Be mindful of the gravity. If you do anything fast with the ‘droid or ramp, we might get knocked around a bit.”
“I know, gravity here’s less than half that of the Moon,” he replied absently, his attention focused on the panel. They were settled down about 300 meters from the shining deposits in the crater, and he was eager to begin his assessment of the material. The chemical analysis showed it was a type of salt, but it was like nothing on Earth.
They felt a stronger shudder as he lowered the aft ramp so the ‘droid could begin its survey. The heavy machine didn’t know it yet, but the numbers dictated that it was on a one-way mission. Gravity meant that heavy machinery would have an easier time staying on the surface, but limited fuel space meant that all extraneous weight had to be left behind if they were to lift off and return to the mining ship.
It’s always about the numbers, Tel thought as he watched the heavy treads of the mining ‘droid raising a haze that obscured the bright patches beyond it. The machine lumbered along, its slow pace geared to its weight and the uneven surface inside the impact crater.
“How much do you think is out there?” Lyra asked as she started laying in the instructions that would return them to the mining ship.
Tel shrugged. “I wasn’t able to get a direct measurement of how deep the deposits are, so it’s impossible to estimate.”
Two alarms went off simultaneously as Tel watched the ‘droid begin to sink into the edges of the white deposits.
Lyra looked over as Tel desperately began recall measures, trying to edge the ‘droid back towards the ship, sardonically asking, “Didn’t you run the numbers on what would happen to a machine that heavy if there wasn’t solid rock below the deposit zone?”.
“There’s no way. This is an ice world, the surface is solid under that…”
The ‘droid disappeared from sight. Lyra and Tel stared at where it had been, then looked at each other. “Are you still reading anything from it?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s fully online, just not…wait. Its descent stopped. According to the sensors, there’s solid metal under it.”
“Solid metal.” Perplexed, Tel refreshed the data feeds. “Not ore. A solid surface, seems to be an alloy of some sort. There’s no way manufactured material can be here…” His voice trailed off as he saw Lyra begin to shake her head.
“The survey data showed that this crater has gone undisturbed for about three million years,” she pointed out. “So…it’s not human. Now what?”
“Now this will either make or break my career,” he sighed. “We’ll either go down in history as the surveyors who found the first alien object, or I’ll just be known as the engineer who couldn’t get the numbers right.”
© Copyright 2016 Christine Clukey Reece