“Come on, Wolverine.”
Kaff gave Bennett a grimace. “Yeah, never heard that one before,” he muttered. He measured the serum into the syringe and jabbed the needle into the tiny port in his arm.
“What happens if you skip?” asked Tobi, the newby of the crew. The Chief had hired him for his brawn. Kaff wished they could have left his mouth at the station.
“His bones melt,” said Bennett.
“Whuffor?” Tobi asked.
“Allergic,” Kaff said, carefully putting the syringe back in the case.
“To calcium.” He held up a vial. “That’s why the shots. Liquid bones.”
He stowed the case in his locker and climbed into his heavy mining suit. The servos on the left were still a little slow. He’d have Yvey look at them when he got back. Tobi checked the seal on his helmet, and they followed the chief out to the airlock.
“Looks like one of them old Koosh balls,” Tobi said.
Kaff wasn’t sure what a Koosh ball was, but he had to admit this was the weirdest asteroid in the Belt. White spires thrust out from a small, solid core. Tobi jetted to a peak and held out his hand. What looked like solid rock gave way to his touch and drifted about like powder.
Tobi revved up his pack and flew through the spire. The top disintegrated into a cloud.
“Yeah, boss?” came a voice from somewhere in the cloud.
“Knock it off.”
“OK, boss.” He flew out of the powder, wiping his visor. “Man, can’t see a thing.”
Kaff couldn’t see Bennett give his patented eye-roll through the tinted visor, but he could practically hear it. They jetted a quarter of the way around the asteroid, looking for a clear spot.
“This looks good,” Bennett said. A blank maw sank into darkness where a handful of spires had been removed. “Any readings?”
Kaff checked his wrist. “Nothin’ more than what we had before. I don’t think these spikes are dense enough to block anything.”
They fell into the dark slowly, feeble helmet lights revealing little. As they reached the core, white spires were replaced by something darker, a smooth-bored tunnel, drill-marks still evident in the surface.
“What is it?” Tobi asked, rubbing the wall. A few whitish flakes came off, revealing translucent blackness.
“It looks like ice,” Bennett said.
They sank further in.
“There they are,” Kaff said, pointing to the four suits anchored into the ice with hooks and cables. He took a deep breath and positioned in front of one.
The suit looked intact, but the face inside…
“He’s a mummy,” Bennett said, staring at another figure.
Shriveled, darkened skin stretched tight over the skull.
“Whatdya talking about, boss?” Tobi asked. He grabbed the suit in front of Kaff and turned it.
“Wait!” Kaff pulled it back. The face inside was gone. In its place, powder floated around inside the helmet like a beige snow globe.
Bennett floated over to them. “What in the world…”
Kaff flickered his wristdisk, pulling up the suit’s data log. “Structural integrity’s intact. Mass is about twenty percent what it should be. Water content is…”
He looked at Bennett who had leaned over to catch the readout. “Zero? How’s that possible?”
The beigy-brown powder settled against the inside of the visor, blocking any view inside. “They’re desiccated,” Kaff said.
“What’s that?” Tobi said.
“No, wait! Idiot.” Bennett growled and followed the newbie deeper into the pit.
As they approached, a growing glow shone from the center of the asteroid. A curved surface, six feet across, seemed to mark the nucleus. Around them, the ice picked up the light, casting odd shadows and reflections.
The surface was covered with thousands of multi-colored, translucent dots in a random pattern. On the upper left, a panel cast a silhouette against the light coming from within.
“I’m so out of here,” Tobi said. Bennett grabbed a strap on his boot before he could get far.
“What do you think?” he asked Kaff.
Kaff had the irrational urge to rub his chin, impossible in the suit. “I think we better avoid that panel. Maybe keep a layer of ice around this bad boy while we dig it out.”
“You’re nuts,” Tobi said.
Bennett unlatched the six-foot hand drill from the back of Tobi’s air tanks. “Yeah. But we’re gonna be rich nuts.”
It took four days before Tobi thought to run the tests that determined the ice was the purest form of water ever seen. That made the next two weeks a bit easier, as they drank their fill. Kaff thought it tasted flat, but it beat the recycled garbage they’d been drinking for the last several months. They moved the previous crew back to their ship. Maybe they’d take them back, but they’d all been reduced to dust, and it’d be a bear to clean the suits. The tanks did come in handy.
“Let’s call it, lads,” Bennett said after another fourteen hour shift. “Chow time.”
Kaff gratefully latched his cutter onto the wall and jetted for the top. They’d cleared a chasm around the circumference of the orb and were now working on a series of cross-lines.
“Man, this is taking too long,” Tobi said for the hundredth time.
“Shut up,” Bennett said.
“He’s right, boss,” Kaff said. “If we have to clear this bugger out all the way ‘round, we’re going to run out of supplies.” They’d already broken into the first crew’s galley.
“We’ll just have to come back,” Bennett said. “Tobi, throw down that tow cable.”
“How’re we gonna do that?” Kaff asked. “Folks’ll ask questions. How’re we gonna get the funds for another—” He jerked away as the weighted end of the tow cable flew past.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Tobi called from above. “I’ll swing it back.”
“We’ll think of something,” Bennett said. “Without partners. Maybe we can claim that other ship as salvage.”
Kaff wondered how he’d read his mind. A light fell over them. He looked up to see the shear wall in front of them fall away.
“Tobi, what’s going on?” he yelled up.
“Sorry. The weight hit the wall. I guess it was too thin to take it.” He giggled.
Bennett scrambled. “Get out! Get out!” He hit his thrusters, catching Kaff in his wash and pushing him down.
“Why?” Tobi asked.
Kaff recovered and followed Bennett, a safe distance to the side. “Because that control panel-lookin’ thing’s on the other side of this wall.”
When Kaff reached Tobi, the boy still hadn’t moved. He pulled the suit around and stared into the tinted visor. Kaff had seen convulsions that bad one other time—a buddy coming off a bad drug trip. He pressed his visor against Tobi’s. All he could hear was gurgling and sickeningly liquid coughs.
The boy’s face stretched across his skull, his lips pulling back from his teeth. Tobi gave one last great shudder and was still.
Kaff shivered as he stared at the partially dehydrated face grinning at him with bright blue teeth.
By the time he reached the ship with Tobi’s remains, Bennett was long gone, carried away by his jet pack. Kaff hailed him, but received no response. Eventually the jets would run out of fuel and Bennett would sail for parts unknown.
The entire way back to Ruby Station, Kaff racked his brains. What would he tell the cops? He had no idea what the orb was, or what it did to poor Tobi and Bennett.
Or why Kaff wasn’t affected.