Fragmented (November 2021)

By Nathan Sweem

Chrys decelerated to match the velocity of the asteroid below her. The hunk of rock didn't have a special name. It was one of hundreds in the belt large enough to land on safely with her skimmer that she was tasked with cataloging. She'd touched on enough already that her hands flew through the procedure effortlessly. Her rotation auto-locked in unison with the spinning asteroid and she pitched downward. Landing gear smashed into solid rock and anchor spikes secured the skimmer in place with the throw of a lever.

She lifted herself out of the pilot chair and hunched over to pull herself aft. The task of donning her exosuit sent her into awkward angles from horizontal to completely upside down. Like most of her equipment, the suit was a repurposed piece of gear acquired by Dr. Thorn, the research geologist in charge of her internship.

She double checked her boot straps, then stepped through the airlock. Her hand found the tether outside the door and pulled back on the end hook, freeing enough slack to secure it to a loop at her waist. She lowered herself to the ground with her other hand. Spike cleats crunched into the substrate automatically as her boots made contact. She relaxed for a breath.

The routineness of the job never robbed Chrys of its thrill. The blackness of space all around her was an infinite abyss that sent her mind spiraling into its endless potential. The sun's distant yellow glow felt like home, though without her exosuit she'd freeze, since none of its warmth stuck to the frigid rock. Death loomed in the void behind all that routineness. Yet the unique opportunity to step foot on so many untouched pieces of rock, and to see the sky from places that no one else had ever seen, dwarfed every danger.

Her spike cleats extended and retracted automatically as she traversed the asteroid's uneven surface. Before she could venture away from the skimmer, she traced a hand along the hull to a cargo locker and popped it open. Inside were empty core sample tubes. She lifted one out and latched it to her suit with carabiners. Then she tucked it under her arm and headed towards a black horizon in the distance.

Gentle tugs loosed slack on the tether as she went until she hit the extent of its reach about a hundred meters out. She set the end of the tube down on the gritty surface, unhooked it from her suit, and prepared it to take a sample. A series of strokes on its keypad engaged circular drill blades and the aluminum cylinder began a gradual disappearing act into the asteroid's dusty surface.

As usual, Chrys took the chance to enjoy the view. The skimmer looked so immaterial from where she stood, like a bug poised to leap into the air and float away. Her lifeline was a taut strand of spider silk.

A jolt from the sampler interrupted her reverie. She cursed into her helmet. It did that whenever it struck a deposit that was too tough for the drill. She placed a hand on the cylinder face and felt a buzz that confirmed the blades were stalled.

She shut off the motor and alternated twisting the tube clockwise and counterclockwise, while she applied a light force upwards. The maneuver always made her nervous that the whole assembly would pop loose, and the momentum would launch her and the equipment into space.

Another firm twist dislodged the tube from its stuck point and she re-engaged the motor. The drill blades whirled back to life and the sampler resumed its descent. She kept one hand on the metallic shaft to better sense its progress as it approached the deeper layer for the second time.

Its mechanical purr hiccuped. A reverberation shot through her arm as the drill crunched into something. Then it continued normally again. She remained by the machine until it sunk completely into the rock. The keypad beeped, ready to extract, and the motor hummed in standby mode.

Chrys shut off the device and pulled it free. She reattached the carabiners, and began the trek back to the skimmer. The asteroid's barren face and the black around her were so quiet. She heard the same crunch replay in her head over and over, and felt the same rattle on her palm. She couldn't shake it.

After the core was loaded into the cargo locker and she was space borne once again, she tried to tune out the crunch by concentrating on her work. The remainder of her day took her to two more asteroids where she went through all the same motions. She dreaded another hiccup each time, but there were none.

Memory of the sound rode alongside her on the return trip. She blasted a playlist of electronic metal to drown it out. Something new must have gone awry. She wouldn't know what it was until she laid out the samples for dissection.

Dr. Thorn's research vessel — the Admiral Byrd — was parked outside the belt, an oblong island of chrome suspended in the black. Its bright sheen and smooth angles eased Chrys' anxiety and quieted the noise in her head as she approached. She pressed a combination of buttons on the controls and the Byrd's maintenance bay doors slid open ahead of her. She guided the skimmer through and maneuvered it into its spot between two others just like it. The bay doors slid shut and lights flickered on, welcoming her home.

Chrys climbed out of the skimmer and stretched her legs in the Byrd's artificial gravity. Hers and the other spare skimmers took up almost half of the maintenance bay. The other half was a maze of racks and shelves stacked to the roof loaded with tools and miscellaneous supplies. She wheeled a flat bed hand truck over to the skimmer and loaded the core samples onto it, ratcheting them down with straps to secure them. Wheels on the hand truck clanked as Chrys carted it up the exit ramp into the nearest passageway.

Soft light glinted off a chrome deck and ivory bulkheads. A holographic projection of Dr. Thorn's face appeared midair by Chrys' arm and followed her as she pushed the hand truck down the passageway. A staticky voice crackled at her.

"Glad to see you back in one piece!" said Dr. Thorn. "Everything go smoothly?"

"One of the drills gave me trouble. It took the sample, but I want to run it through the scanner right away."

"Excellent! I'll leave you to it." he concluded, and his holographic face blinked away.

Running lights flicked on and followed her to the lab where she offloaded the cylinders and cataloged them before placing them in storage. All but the first, the one that had made the suspicious crunch. That one, she strapped to a rolling specimen tray that fed into the scanner — a medical device that Dr. Thorn had reconfigured to image geological samples.

She rolled the tray into the scanner and eyed the display while the machine cranked and hummed. The screen refreshed layer by layer, revealing the sample's contents in black-and-white. Nothing extraordinary appeared in the grainy picture until a dark splotch materialized near the middle section. A curved shadow stretched downward, and widened. A semicircular gap opened along one edge, and the shadow narrowed to a blunt end. It resembled half of a face. Its one empty eye socket stared. On second thought, it reminded her not of a face, but a helmet, the sort used in ancient times. The display indicated it was too dense for sediment, and was most likely metallic. She'd have to run a spectral analysis to learn more. She waited for the rest of the picture to fill in and the machine to stop humming. Then she rolled the tray back out and hefted the cylinder over to the dissection table.

She held down a release and the cylinder popped open. Inside was a column of sediment held in place by a containment field, stratified into a myriad of color. She equipped herself with a scoop and forceps and worked as methodically as a surgeon, removing chunks and placing them into test tubes. Only part of the dark splotch was visible. The bulk of it was hidden under grayish substrate.

She brushed away a layer of sand and dust to expose the same helmet shape that had shown on the screen, but more life-like, colored with hues of sickly green and brownish red. It couldn't have been a helmet, but its haunting stare wouldn't let the idea go. She prodded it with her tools. It was one solid piece, significantly more rigid than the surrounding sediment. She ran a gloved finger along its length. Teeth marks from the drill gave it a jagged edge, and revealed a rich, coppery inside. The rest of its surface was riddled with oxidized dents and discolored bumps. She removed a sliver with a laser scalpel and placed it in a test tube. She continued down the rest of the column to complete the work, her mind wondering what the spectrometer would tell her of the strange object.

When the test tube rack was completely filled, she vaporized the specimens into their base components and fed them into the spectrometer. She didn't care about the other rocks. She wanted to know what that thing was.

A copper-tin alloy.

Chrys' heart raced when she read the words. An alloy meant it was man-made, a man-made object buried in the middle of nowhere in the belt. It made no sense.

She boxed up the sample and threw it into storage with the rest. Immediately afterwards, she regretted not taking one last look at the thing. It couldn't have been a helmet. Her intellect tried to contort its image in her memory into something more reasonable. But when she was isolated in her room and her work was tucked away, when she drifted into the blackness of sleep, her mind explored the possibilities unearthed by what she had seen.

She saw the belt transformed into a link to our past, perhaps the remains of a planet that had long ago met its demise. She knew that the combined mass of every asteroid in the belt couldn't have been enough to make a planet. But she wondered if there had once been more, that had since scattered to other parts of the system and beyond.  Perhaps its continents had become moons around Jupiter, its seas tossed into rings around Saturn, and other parts flung into the blackness beyond. Countless stray pieces of ice and stone drifted throughout the system. Any number of them could have been fragments of a shattered world where humans used to roam. Perhaps it hadn't been humans who had left the artifact, but another intelligent race that had thrived long before humans ever existed.

She prodded Dr. Thorn for information on the subject, careful to speak only within the confines of observable facts. He explained that formation of an alloy such as that found in her sample could, in fact, occur naturally, given the right conditions. If two asteroids collided at such velocities to generate enough heat to liquefy the metals they contained, they could potentially combine into an alloy.

Chrys remained unconvinced.

Months later, after her internship on the Byrd ended, she found work as part of the maintenance crew working on a transport that hauled supplies between the outer planets. When she wasn't busy maintaining the ship, she searched articles and research papers for anything solid to which she could anchor her idea, but never did. She took it out and toyed with it when she was alone, but otherwise kept it tucked away.

She drifted from that job to the next, and the next. Her secret thoughts about fragments of a shattered world drifted through space with her.

Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.

About the Author: Nathan Sweem (Instagram / Twitter) served five years as an Army linguist who specialized in Arabic and Iraqi dialect. He currently writes novels, short fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. His work has appeared in Adelaide Literary Magazine, Message Magazine, and others.