Chapter 5 - Aeration


Billions of years ran under my fingertips as I held my hand against the wall, circling the chamber I would call home for the next month (What had Tea seen? How long had it been alone, or surrounded in the Oort cloud?). The miners had cleared the first true hab on Tea with skill, taking pride in knowing this would be the first home for humanity beyond Earth. These smooth walls, carefully checked dimensions, and carefully routed wiring and plumbing runs would be covered over by some interior cladding later in Tea’s life, but for now the raw beauty of their work was plain and perfect (I wasn’t very good at masking things, I saw no reason these walls should be)(but that might be why my friends don’t ask me for interior design advice).

I was still getting used to the next to nothing gravity of Tea. The habs were being built with the ceiling inward, toward the center of the rock, but until the Tea was really spun up, we were on the float, so rooms had to work without any orientation too. They had just started using the cleared stone that didn’t have any valuable ore in it as a sort of mass drive, flinging it off Tea at just the right angle to give us some angular momentum. It was a bit like flinging salt over your shoulder and waiting for it to turn you around, but with no friction and plenty of salt, over time we would start to spin and up and down would mean something again (I really was missing a little bit of g, funny what you take for granted).

And I was going to be helping make more salt soon - all those papers on the theoretical use of explosives to mine in space were suddenly not so theoretical. The miners were using adapted tooling from on planet, but that same lack of gravity that I bemoaned would be a boon here. No more working about cave-ins, no more having to wear out truck and tire to haul tonnage out of the way. However, there were a few new wrinkles - you were unlikely to crack a quarter of the Earth off into space if you energized the wrong seam in the material you were digging into. Also, since nuclear devices were outright not an option, you never had to plan what to do with irradiated materials after you dug them out.

Going up and down the gravity well was no big deal to me now, having taken that ride so many times in the last few years it almost seemed like taking the city bus at this point (not that I felt comfortable on the city bus)(I love the idea of public transit, but for me, too many people too close, I just…I’d rather walk). But now that the first hab, complete with air, heat, lights, plumbing, all the mod cons, was ready, we could gather and react to data and make plans on a more timely basis. Ur, as we began calling this hab (I’m glad they stuck with easy to say names rather than the historically accurate earliest cities, my language skills are far behind my physics), was quickly being populated with the project planning staff that had been camped on the various ships and skylabs we’d thrown up in the last few years. Even the Herald was out there, playing host to a rotating list of science and industry figures.

The big question before us this month was what to do about the gold.

It turned out Tea had a secret - some time in its long life, it had picked up a large block of gold, flung out from the heart of an exploding supernova. On the one hand, several of us were excited beyond belief to be able to study non-terrestrial gold, to be able to sample and test the physical outcome of the last gasp of a dying star. To measure isotope levels and to look for entrapped samples of exotic particles, it was the closest we could get to the center of a star (or would want to, fusion is very hot). It, just like so much of Tea, was an unprecedented opportunity to learn more about the universe around us.

On the other hand, some people wanted to make jewelry out of it. And just as many in that same frame of mind were terrified of making jewelry out of it, that the sudden glut of gold in Earth’s markets would devalue it as an indicator of social class and be had for the price of a jug of milk. Somewhere in the middle (yes, I’m aware that is basically four hands at this point) were the electronics manufacturers who wanted their cut to bring down the price of circuit board printing, allowing them to churn out more e-waste than ever before. And the first hand was much smaller than the latter three (I agree, this “hand” metaphor has gotten out of control)(metaphors are hard).

There was also the fact that the nugget of gold had been driven into Tea’s surface through a major seam that ran down deeper into Tea than we had first realized, so that any major excavations, explosive or not, risked significant fractures near to where the majority of mining, and building, had already happened. The combination of all this meant that over the next month (at minimum) we would be making a list and checking it twice (it was late December when I launched, certain cliches are on my mind) about the practical realities, as well as talking interminably about impractical realities, like market prices and consumer confidence.

At least James would be here. I cannot believe I was happy to have my former roommate, but space was a little less cold with him around, as long as I had headphones on. His flat in Ur was a few ’locks away, but we would all be gathering in Conference Room 2 in a few hours to begin laying the ground rules. The UN would be playing referee between the scientific community and industry, and James was going to be wearing the whistle (that’s a better metaphor, but also the limit of my sports knowledge). The coverage of the meeting back on Earth varied from “boring bureaucrats have boring meeting” to “New World Order lizard people meet to use gold to take your guns”.

The arrival of Tea had unsettled some people’s worldviews, but since it didn’t contain aliens nor bear divine portents, and frankly settled in anticlimactically at L4, very little in the way of proper conspiracy theories had bubbled up. But with the discovery of the gold nugget, all of that had changed. Something about that yellow metal made people lose their minds, and social media had exploded with theories. The strains of thought that eventually collected together agreed that the elites had always known there would be gold and had used most of humanities nuclear devices so no one could stop them from stealing it all. And now they would simultaneously debase all currency to propel the world into a new serfdom for the masses, as well as use the gold to create a robot army to control humanity. Never mind that there were still enough nuclear devices left to do serious damage, and that the elites already owned those devices, and there wasn’t actually enough gold to both debase the currency and make a robot army so the lizard people would have to prioritize; it all had sounded just truthy enough that they could go all in.

At first this current of thought had been laughed at by most, mocked as another harebrained social movement that could be ignored. The problem is that many of the heads of industry and defense, the billionaires and politicians and others one could call ”elite”, really were deciding the fate of this never before seen wealth and opportunity, both the gold and Tea itself. And as many miners who came back down the well made clear, those same people were willing to put their boot on the neck of the workers, robots of gold or not. It didn’t help either that those same reports of worker suppression were investigated and found merited by official reviews Earth-side, well after the fact, closing up the issue neat and tidy.

So the movement had grown, taking on the odd lizard people level element here and there, but overall becoming more pointed, and more violent. There had been demonstrations (depending on the media figure described as either “protests” or “riots”), a few vandalizations of Senate offices or corporate headquarters, and one actual bombing of a launch facility. That last one had changed things, but not in the way the movement had hoped. Security went from serious to cavity inspection (an escalation I was especially uncomfortable with), and the media coverage became more entirely focused on the bombing and not the concerns that precipitated it.

I pondered all of this as I made my way along the handholds in the halls towards the conference room. The hab was a network of pressure doors and proper airlocks forming a carefully laid out disaster response plan in the stone itself. No room had only one entrance, and no two entrances were part of the same ‘lock’s path. We were several meters in from the outer edge of Tea, but the first few accidental pressure suit failures put the fear of the void deep in the hearts of everyone on Tea (it was better to have a ‘lock and not need it then, well you get it). It did make the process of getting around Ur a bit slower, but left you with plenty of time to think.

James smiled as he saw me walk (well, use the magnetized floor of the conference room) in. The room was actually less conference and more command and control with a decent table - most data streams from sensors and survey teams was streamed here, the walls covered with displays roughly oriented as windows to the parts of Tea they reported on. While our personal quarters had electricity and plumbing, the conference room had priority in getting kitted out, hence it being the only room in Ur that had the magnetic flooring we would all be getting eventually (it was a mixed bag though, it it easier to forget gravity wouldn’t keep your slate on the table where you set it down).

“Hey there roomie!” he grinned, giving the goofy wave I think he reserved to annoy me. “Hello James, good to see you again.” I replied calmly. “I think I believe you mean that.” he said, smile peaking a bit at the corner. I made my way to the table and strapped into my seat as he continued to greet the various participants in this first round of conversation. I will give him this, his ease with people of all backgrounds was something I couldn’t understand, just like he never quite understood the propagation of energy through rigid bodies in space. But then, to each their own.

To my left was seated the very image of an elite lizard person, the chairperson of one of the corporate boards whose miners were making Tea what it was. Leopold, the name tags in front of our seats informed me. James had mentioned him before - he was not impressed. This time however Leopold would have a different perspective - the miners would be extracting the nugget no matter which party had the greatest say, and he would get his annual bonus either way. His interest actually would be for the overall safety and long term impact of the process, as he had many other nuggets of other valuable metals to extract and replacing workers was harder in microgravity than it had been in the mines on earth.

To my right was another scientist, a rather controversial one, both in outlook and title. Sociologist were never viewed as “real” science by most of the community since most of their studies amounted to collecting stories, and the plural of anecdote is not data (though anecdata was one of my favorite portmanteaus). Dr. Victoria Windsor, or Princess Victoria Windsor, or Dr. Princess, was a member of the British royal family who had eschewed the family’s monarchal lifestyle, but not their wealth or power. And in the name of making sociology a proper science, had spent millions (some claim billions but I think that includes the venture capital her prestige helped raise) of pounds to execute very rigorous sociological studies — that themselves were controversial for questionable ethics. In one groundbreaking example, she provided universal basic income for the entire state of Nebraska but required them to use what were mockingly called princess pounds, only accepted by Nebraskan businesses and each registered to the Nebraskan citizen they were initially given to.

Strictly scientifically, study was a wild success, gathering an glut of hard data on spending habits, poverty alleviation, addiction support, educational outcomes, and so much more that the datasets were going to be a treasure trove for generations to come. However it was also perhaps the largest violation of privacy ever seen in a sociology study, and many Nebraskans were compelled to participate by the state government as the swelling number of climate refugees left the state’s traditional industries without enough jobs and the overproduction of agristuffs from automated labor that couldn’t be purchased by the economically desperate citizens. And that was just one of Dr. Windor’s studies - so her presence was interesting, to say the least.

All around the table people unexpected and inevitable took their seats. “Thank you all for coming. You know the weight of what we need to discuss beginning today, though perhaps ‘weight’ isn’t the best phrase to use in microgravity!” James grinned, always proud of himself when he could make a science joke that made sense. “I hope you are all adjusting to your new environment, especially those for whom this is your first trip up from Earth. It will get more comfortable, I promise - but it won’t get more normal. I would also like to take a moment to thank the miners who not only dug these fine rooms for us, but installed the air control and conditioning that allows us to meet without pressure suits right here in Ur.” “It was our pleasure!” Leopold chimed in, as if he had done any of the work in making Tea what it was becoming. James, the diplomat, didn’t address the incongruity head on but kept moving. “You have all received agendas for the next month’s discussions, though of course those will change as agreements and plans are made. First and foremost we will deal with the physical realities of mining on Tea, then move onto the social realities of precious metals economics, and lastly the specific financial agreements that will guide our work on the Space Nugget.” I hid a small smile, as again I could hear the capitals, but I was proud in a muted way that he had not given it the full “Nuggettss in Spaaace” treatment.

“And what about how this gold will help normal people?” A somehow quietly strident voice came from a quarter way around the table. A necessary but burdensome acquiescence to popular demand, Richard Smith had been invited to be part of the discussions on Tea as one of the more reasonable members of the anti-lizard people faction. ”Well, Dick,” James began, and I could feel the carefully avoided emphasis (I believe “stank” was the phrase he once used) in James voice, “that is really what all of this is about, but especially the second point, understanding the large scale impact of this find. Dr. Windsor will help lead those conversations in due time.” “Oh great, Dr. Princess, who is willing to experiment on the plain folks of Nebraska and toy with the new settlements up in Exarctica, she’s going to be the voice of the common man?” he sneered. I grimaced slightly - I knew what James meant, but even I knew bringing up a royal academic was not going to sit well with a populist like Smith. But this wasn’t James first unprecedented contentious international negotiation in space (now he almost has me doing it), so he calmly replied “That’s a fair point Dick, but I only mean that Dr. Windsor will help define the terms and overall framework, and we will not be running any experiments on anyone, that much I can promise.” Smith seemed satisfied his point had been made for the moment, knowing he would get more opportunities to grand stand during some of the recorded sessions later.

Meanwhile the three executives from luxury goods and electronics manufacturing conglomerates sat quietly. They already had a thumb on the scale with political donations and lobbies in all the countries that needed them, and outright bribes in the countries that didn’t, so they could afford some decorum up front.