Michi let the boozefoam melt on her tongue while she considered. “What do you mean you never saw the rings before your ascent?”
Juniper took a sip of her own drink and savored the bitterness for a moment. “I lived too far south to see them. We’re only four-hundred kay up. They simply never appeared in my sky.”
Michi shook her head. “In that ridiculous blue sky.”
Juniper sniffed. “It’s black at night.”
Michi broke off a fresh piece of foam and popped it in her mouth. “Earth is so odd.”
Juniper’s gaze went to something far beyond the drunken crowd at Cozy’s Depress. “It wasn’t so bad.”
Michi tilted her head and looked at Juniper. Like many Earthborn, she had a lean face. Like most vacuum workers, her brown hair was trimmed to a short fuzz. She had removed her armor plates and environmentals and stood comfortably in just the sleek gray skinsuit, her facemask folded around her neck. When she finally made eye contact, Michi asked. “Then why did you come up? Why keep it such a secret?”
Juniper sighed, then pursed her lips. “I lie,” she said. “I did see it once. In Samarinda, just before launch.”
Michi narrowed her dark eyes and decided to try a different approach. She leaned forward over the small standing table to hear better over the crowd of drunken miners. “Tell me about it.”
Juniper sat her pewter mug in a sticky circle of slopped drink to stabilize it in one-third gravity. “What’s there to say?”
“You were there for twenty-five years. That’s a lifetime. Why won’t you talk about it?”
Juniper looked at Michi and felt the power of her third blackmilk soaking in. Since Michi quit vacuum work last year, she’d grown out her hair, thick and black. Tonight she wore it in ringlets which made her round face look much younger than her thirty-one. The formal leotard and fitted vest over her slim build only reinforced the idea, though Juniper thought her extensive jewelry was more fitting for someone in their dotage. Or in a different line of work. “From the surface, Rockring looked a lot like Midring does to us. Just a line of jewels sailing through the sky. I could hide it all behind this,” she said, hefting her mug and taking a swallow. “But when you’re down on Earth, when you’ve lived there your whole life…” She bit her lip. “It wasn’t odd to me, it was everything I’d known, just like this is everything you’ve ever know. Everything is one gee all the time, and when you go outside you don’t need to bring your own air along. So when I was on my way to the launch pad and I saw those jewels sail out of the sunset, it was like watching a myth become real.”
Michi absently triggered her empty cup and a column of foam began to form.
Juniper gave her a rueful smile. “I forget, you’ve never seen a sunset.”
Michi blinked. “Sure I have. Thousands of them. Nine per shift when I did vacuum work.”
Juniper shook her head. “That’s just the sun going behind the Earth. Down there, sunsets are an experience. There’s only one a day. Every single one is different and you never know what you’re going to get. That little color change that takes two seconds up here can last half an hour down there, and it infuses everything. The entire sky goes through the spectrum. The blue turns yellow and orange and scarlet. Clouds turn pink, then seem to catch fire. As they slowly fade, the stars come out. It’s a special time.”
Michi poked a finger at the fresh pillar of boozefoam and decided it needed to cure a bit longer. She licked her finger. “Sounds romantic.”
Juniper drained her drink and looked at the damp dregs in the bottom of the mug. “Yeah.” she said. “It could be.”
Michi picked a few crumbs of boozefoam off the table with her wet finger and looked at Juniper. “Do you regret it?”
“Coming up here,” Michi said.
“No. That I don’t regret.”
“Then why aren’t we partying? Why do you always spend your ascension day working an extra long shift, then hiding in the back of a dive like this?” Michi said, breaking off a piece of foam and popping it in her mouth.
“My ascension was never about partying. It’s…a memorial.”
Michi’s eyes softened as she reached across the little table. “Juniper, I didn’t know. You never—”
Juniper nodded at something behind Michi. “I thought it was obvious that I was trying to be alone.”
Michi turned and spotted a round form pushing his way clumsily through the crowd. “Frip’s not a troublemaker,” she said, raising a hand and waving him over. Her jeweled fingers sparkled in the dim light. “Besides, if it’s not a party, he can’t be a party crasher.”
Frip adjusted course for their table, a bright, broad grin on his dark face. He still wore his full work suit, including armor, environmentals, and full utility kit. Gray dust clung to the recesses and it looked like he had a hardsuit helmet under his arm. He collided heavily with the table, his armor plates clanking. Juniper shook her head, unable to believe she was ever that clumsy, even when she was new to space. With another clank Frip sat something big and round on the table.
What Juniper had thought was an old helmet turned out to be a film-wrapped rock. “Frip, we’re miners,” she said. “We don’t take our work home with us.”
“This isn’t work,” he said, placing his hands over it in benediction. “This is something special.”
“Like that special tip you had on the zero-gee dice game?” Juniper asked, lifting an eyebrow.
“No, look, okay, I didn’t know magnetic dice were inherently rigged. But this… This is the find of a lifetime.”
“Is this from Orinoco?” Michi asked.
“Yeah,” he said absently. “It might be the find of…I don’t know… The millennium?” Frip drew a gloved finger across the film, splitting it. With the tension released, the wrapping snapped, sending a cloud of fine dust into the air. Juniper flinched as her suit mask automatically popped into place. Michi reached down and pulled the electrostatic brush off Frip’s thigh and waved it through the air to catch the worst of it before it got into the bar’s overworked air filters. The enthusiastic complaints that came in from nearby tables were ignored.
Michi said, “Frip, you do know, don’t you, that all of Orinoco is owned by someone. You can’t just stake a claim.”
“I’m not staking a claim,” Frip said, waving his hand at the dust, defeating Michi’s cleanup effort.
“How did you get this through security?” Juniper asked, her mask muffling her voice. Frip was as naïve as any Rockring newb, but he but he had his own brand of tenacious curiosity and skill. For example, in circumventing security scanners. The rock couldn’t contain more than twenty coin of material, but Orinoco’s owners tracked even pebbles to make sure they didn’t go missing. “On second thought, I don’t want to know.”
Michi finished sweeping the air and started on the little halo of dust the rock had scattered across the table. “What makes this so special?” she asked.
“Besides being especially dusty,” Juniper said, folding her mask back down into the neck of her suit.
“Juniper,” Frip said, and flashed the grin again, “I wanted to show you something special for your ascension day.”
Juniper gave Michi a narrow look.
Michi shrugged it off with a knowing smile. She let the brush retract back into Frip’s suit and patted him on the shoulder, hard enough to feel it through the armor. “Go get a drink and then tell us all about it,” she said.
Frip gave both of them a look and then shrugged. “Yeah, okay. Just, don’t let anything happen to it,” he said, turning toward the bar. “It’s special!” he called over his shoulder.
Michi turned back to Juniper and gave her a serious look. “Are you being a pain on purpose?”
“I didn’t invite you. I was perfectly happy by myself before you showed up.”
“You’re not happy, Juniper.”
“And why did you invite Frip?” Juniper asked.
Michi nodded toward where he had disappeared into the crowd. “Why don’t you give him a tumble?” she asked and took a big bite of foam.
Juniper scoffed. “Him? You’re kidding.”
“Don’t you think he’s cute?”
“Would he even know how the parts go together?”
“He totally has a crush on you. He’d get a big kick out of it. And it’s not like it hasn’t been a while for you.”
“Hell, Michi, he’s young enough to be…” Juniper said, and shook her head, suddenly lost back in time.
Michi tilted her head and let the last bit of foam dissolve on her tongue. “I’ve never asked…” she said, tentatively. “Do you have any children back on Earth?”
Juniper slowly turned the mug between her gloved hands. “No,” she said.
“Any social contracts?” Michi asked.
“Where I was from we called it marriage. And yeah, for a while.”
“Limited term?” she asked.
Juniper pursed her lips. “Marriage is for life.”
Michi fiddled with her own cup. “Ah, right. I keep forgetting.”
“Forgetting’s good,” Juniper said with a sigh. She sent Frip a message to pick up a refill for her and Michi while he was at the bar. He refused the funds she tried to transfer.
Michi had eavesdropped on the messages. “You know what he brought up here for seed money, right?”
“Jewelry,” Juniper said, shaking her head. “Kilos of it, I heard. Used his whole mass allowance.”
“You heard correctly,” Michi said, flourishing a hand. Juniper’s eyes narrowed. Michi’s usual silver and platinum was now mostly gold and diamonds.
“You didn’t,” Juniper said.
Michi shrugged. “He was going to get sent back down if someone didn’t buy them.”
“Sending him down might be doing everyone a favor.” Juniper shook her head heavily. “You know he stole most of it,” she said.
Michi froze. “No. He couldn’t have.”
“Gold and diamonds are valuable on Earth. Like wood and microchips valuable.”
“Oh.” Michi broke the last of the foam off her cup and toyed with it. “So what should I do?” She spread her fingers and frowned at her adorned hands.
Juniper shrugged. “Keep it,” she said. “It’s not like he stole food, and I very much doubt he killed anyone for it. But I bet most of that gold came from up here in the first place.”
Michi pursed her lips, activated her cup, and put her hands under the table.
“At any rate, I’ll give him a refresher on abrasion armor,” Juniper said. “The way he’s going, he’ll have worn it out before he’s paid for it. Can’t have him stealing up here.”
Michi frowned at her cup as it ran out of juice after half a column. “What did you bring up for seed money?” she asked.
There was a long pause and Michi thought Juniper hadn’t heard. Or had decided to ignore the question. “Medicine, mostly,” she said at last. “Leftover cancer drugs. Painkillers. It was less than a year after the declaration of independence. You remember how it was back then.”
Michi nodded. When the orbital rings had declared material independence from Earth, some parts of their economy had a lot of room for improvement. Still did.
“I carried some antique paper books and aged Scotch, too. One bottle of Scotch brought me almost as much coin as the medicine. Though I never found a buyer for the books.”
“I’ve never seen a book,” Michi said quietly. “They’re made of trees, right?”
Juniper nodded and smiled. “On Earth, they even make buildings out of trees. Hell, they burn it for heat.”
Michi shook her head slowly, savoring the last of her sweet boozefoam. “Earth is odd.”
“Come over some time, I’ll be glad to show you the books,” Juniper said.
“I’d like that.”
After a few seconds of eye contact, their gaze fell to the rock between them.
“I wonder what this is,” Michi said waving at the orb, dark gray in the dim light. From the way it pulled heat out of the air, it must have just come from space.
“Knowing Frip, it’s probably unicorn horn,” Juniper said.
“Is that the real mythical horse or the fake mythical horse?” Michi asked.
“Unicorns are made up. You’re thinking zebras.”
“And pandas?” Michi asked.
“Real, but extinct. And before you ask, penguins are real too.”
“This is why Frip has a crush on you. You’re smart. You had a mysterious life full of adventure on Earth. And I think you probably know more than I do about the rings.”
“At best I’m a smartass. Besides, no one has a crush on anyone for being smart.”
Michi ran a finger around the rim of her empty cup. “Some people do,” she said quietly.
Juniper stopped herself from saying the first words that came to mind. Instead, she reached around the rock and placed a hand in front of Michi and quietly said her name.
Michi looked at Juniper’s hand. It was encased in a suitglove, woven with fine detail, showing the patina of long use and careful maintenance. She slid her own naked hand over Juniper’s. “I know you’re not—”
Juniper pulled her hand away, but not quickly. “I’m sorry, Michi. There’s just such a distance between us.”
Michi followed Juniper’s gloved hand as it retreated across the table and gripped the empty mug. “There doesn’t have to be,” she said. “I’m not a panda and you’re not a unicorn. We’re both real, both really here, right now.”
Juniper couldn’t think of anything to say.
“And nothing waits forever,” Michi said quietly, pushing the button on her foam cup and watching the “empty” indicator blink.
The table was still silent when Frip stumbled back out of the crowd. He had a vodka buck in one hand and a mug of blackmilk in the other, both slopping thickly onto the floor. He placed Juniper’s drink in front of her and produced a vial from a chest pocket for Michi.
Juniper watched the dark froth slide languidly down the side of the mug. Michi accepted the vial with with a forced smile. “Thank you, Frip,” she said, ejecting the empty from her cup and socketing the replacement.
“Thanks, Frip,” Juniper said, working out how to pick up her mug without getting the sticky drink on her glove.
Frip lifted his cup. “To Juniper on the anniversary of her ascension!”
Juniper lifted her drink, but balked at the toast. Michi came to the rescue, hoisting her own cup. “To a unique day,” she said.
All three touched glasses. Juniper even made eye contact with the others to avoid bad luck.
After everyone’s vessels were back on the table and Michi’s cup was extruding a new column of foam, Juniper tapped the rock with a padded knuckle. “What makes this so special?”
“Have you scanned it yet?” Frip asked.
Juniper shook her head, then leaned in and went glassy as she accessed her suit’s surface spectrometer. She shared the data feed with Michi.
“Iron, nickel, cobalt. A few other traces. Except for all the cobalt, it seems pretty ordinary. About five coin worth of metals,” she said. Which made it an even bigger mystery why he had smuggled it in. If he was caught, he’d have to pay a hundred times that in fines.
“Okay, but I found it inside Orinoco.”
His audience didn’t react. “Which is a stony-iron asteroid,” he said. “It has a lot more silicates than are in this rock.”
“Every asteroid has some inclusions,” Michi said.
“Inclusions, sure, but this is something else. Here,” he said offering them a video feed.
Juniper pursed her lips and accepted the feed, but made sure she ran it through her most discriminating filters. New arrivals were known to have bad data hygiene.
It was stereo video from his helmet cam. The remains of a drillbot took up most of the view, smashed into the bottom of a smooth borehole, glittering in his helmet lights. Frip’s suited hands worked a power cutter as he clipped off pieces of the remains. Loud, angry music from Earth played over the suit’s audio channel. Juniper muted it.
“This drillbot triggered a blowout today and got pasted,” Frip narrated as they watched. “So they cleared the shaft and sent me down to salvage its brains. No big deal, other than being a mile down that little hole. Seriously triggered my claustrophobia.”
“It won’t collapse, Frip,” Juniper said.
“Yeah, well, I don’t feel that, do I?”
In the video, his handheld snippers sliced at the twisted metal surrounding the armored brain box. Suddenly the box sprung free of the wreckage and tumbled away. The view shook as Frip groped wildly for the wayward prize.
“Use your tethers, Frip,” Juniper muttered.
“Okay, yeah, but look,” Frip said, running the video forward, compressing the time it took to pack the robot’s brain into a sling from ten minutes to five seconds. Realtime playback resumed as he turned from the wreckage to reveal a jagged cleft in the side of the borehole, and a glistening blackness beyond. The secondary data channel showed the void was almost perfectly round, a dozen meters across, the walls shimmering with dark bubbled glass. A few pieces of sand and gravel—shrapnel from the blowout—spun languidly through the space, most of their momentum killed off by collisions with the wall. And in the center, bigger than anything else in view, was a nearly spherical rock. It floated in the exact center and was almost perfectly still, glowing like a full moon in Frip’s helmet light. Despite her decision not to get sucked in to one of Frip’s adventures, Juniper found it curious. She had never seen anything quite like it. She checked the data channels and saw the surrounding void had mineral signatures that were more typical of Orinoco. But mineral content aside, the rock in the center drew attention. It didn’t match anything else. It had an almost deliberate roundness, almost deliberate stillness.
Michi noticed it too. Stillness was uncommon when working in zero gee. Every miner knew the game of floaters, where players released pebbles in a vacated shaft and bet on the last to touch the wall. Matches rarely lasted more than a minute. Without air to slow anything down, tidal forces and microscopic inertia conspired against any two objects remaining motionless.
Frip sipped his drink through a straw and watched Juniper’s response to the video. “I’m right, aren’t I? It’s special, isn’t it?”
Juniper was running analysis on the video, tracking the motion of everything to account for the anomalous stillness. There wasn’t enough data to come to any conclusions. “It’s unusual, that’s for sure.”
Michi reached toward the rock but stopped when she felt the chill in the air. It was still cold enough to burn. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said.
Frip flashed a bright grin. He’d finally found something to surprise these old masters. “So, I’m at the bottom of this hole, looking at this thing and I start wondering. This asteroid is what, a million years old?”
“Four and a half billion,” Michi said.
“Right,” Frip said and licked his lips. “So where did all this pressure come from? Enough pressure to smear an armored drillbot when he nicked the void? Any chemical reactions from its formation would have run out. Any gases would have dispersed into the surrounding rock a zillion years ago.”
“Blowouts aren’t that uncommon,” Juniper said. “We do all kinds of evil things to a rock when we’re mining it. Gases build up, and we can’t anticipate everything.”
“Sure, but we’re not actively mining Orinoco yet, just doing deep surveys. And I couldn’t find a record of a blowout this big during a survey.”
Juniper raised an eyebrow to Michi, who was better at searches. Michi brushed foam crumbs off her lips and her eyes defocused as she checked. After a few seconds she shook her head slightly. “Every other one I find is just a few joules of energy. No where near the magnitude of this blowout. If it was a known hazard, the drillbot would have avoided it.”
Juniper took a big swallow of her drink and returned it to the table with a thunk. “But it’s not impossible, right?”
Michi looked between the two of them, then at the rock. “The big asteroids like Orinoco formed eons ago, and are selected because they’re supposed to be stable. But on the other hand, bringing them into Earth orbit is disruptive. They go from steady sun to an eighty-eight minute day/night cycle, and matching tides from the moon. We’re just low enough that there’s enough atmosphere to heat up an rock nine kay long a few degrees. Orinoco is only the eighth one we’ve captured. It’s by far the biggest and the first stony-iron asteroid. We’re all still learning.” She flicked a glance at Juniper.
“Right, okay,” Frip said, then placed a hand gently on top of the rock. “But that’s just chemistry and physics. What’s beyond both of those?”
Neither of them had an answer ready. “Beyond physics?” Michi asked.
“Life!” Frip said.
“Oh, come on,” Juniper said. Michi just shrugged.
Frip looked between them. “What?”
Juniper pinched the bridge of her nose “You think this thing’s alive?” she said.
“I mean, I don’t know,” Frip said, adjusting the yoke of his helmet ring. “Obviously not like what we’re used to, just maybe it’s a seed or an egg.”
Juniper smirked. “So that’s now baby asteroids are made.”
Michi frowned. “Juniper…”
Frip saw the look on Juniper’s face and sagged. He let out a heavy breath through his nose and gave the rock a sad look. “I just thought…” He looked at Juniper again. “I wanted…”
Juniper saw the look on both of their faces and decided she’d said more than enough.
Between them, a snap came from the rock. It moved slightly.
Frip jumped. By instinct, both Michi and Juniper reached out to grab him before he hit the ceiling.
Feet back on the floor and gripping the table with both hands, Frip blinked at his egg for a few seconds until he noticed his audience’s laughter. “What?”
Michi patted his shoulder, then gave it a friendly shake so he’d feel it. “It’s just warming up, Frip. It’s spent an eternity at forty kelvins.”
Frip took a moment to adjust to the idea that it wasn’t hatching. “Okay, right. But, well, look at this,” he said. He dipped a gloved finger in his drink and rubbed it on the top of the rock, where it immediately froze.
“It does make a very convincing ice cube,” Juniper said. She saw Michi’s glare and regretted saying anything.
“No, not that,” Frip said, frustrated. He turned on the heater in his glove finger and rubbed the spot. Michi munched on boozefoam and gave Juniper a look, asking her to play nice. Juniper shrugged very slightly.
“Okay, see?” Frip said, pulling his finger away. He’d warmed a spot enough to melt the water and vodka and wash the dust from the area. “It’s pitted.”
Juniper leaned in and examined the clean area with her optics. It was shades darker than the rest of the rock, nearly pitch black. The rough surface was pocked with shallow pits of dark glass. Michi gave her a questioning look and Juniper shared the detail view with her.
“How far in were you?” Michi asked.
“Twelve-hundred meters,” he said, his excitement starting to growing again. He shared a drilling map of the area. The void was at the end of a long winding tunnel, one of the hundreds that drillbots made as they explored Orinoco’s deep structures.
Juniper leaned back in thought.
“Look, those are zap pits from micrometeorites, right?” Frip said. Neither of them contradicted him. “It couldn’t get them inside that void. That means this rock had to be in open space before it was sealed in its parent asteroid, four billion years ago. You know what that means?”
Juniper was staring into her mug, trying to think of a rational explanation for the evidence. There had to be one.
“Tell us what you think it is,” Michi said.
Frip took a few breaths as he planned his reveal. “Okay, think about it. All the solid matter in the solar system, from the heavy metals in Orinoco to the steel in this table were made inside stars that died before our sun was even born, right?”
Juniper admitted this was true and Frip continued. “One of those dying stars could have had a civilization that knew what was coming. Knew they couldn’t escape their sun going kerblwey. So they found a way to… I don’t know. To plant a seed, maybe. To make something that would make it to the next generation of suns.” His voice was husky as he surveyed his audience. “They’d put them anywhere they thought might survive, so that after their sun burned out and new suns were born, that maybe someone would know that they had lived.”
Michi squinted at the rock. “So they wouldn’t be forgotten,” she murmured. She reached out with a finger and picked up a bit of the dust that had fallen to the table. She rubbed it between her finger and thumb for a moment before tilting her head and looking at Juniper. “What do you think?”
Juniper shook her head, but not in disagreement.
“Just think,” Michi said. “If this really is a message from the deep past. What if someone found it, and then threw it away thinking it was just an ordinary rock? What if these seeds were never recognized for what they are, they just stayed dead and forgotten forever?”
Juniper forced herself to break eye contact and looked at the rock. Plain and dull and gray, just like every other rock she’d seen since she’d come up fifteen years ago today. She slowly undid the buckle on her suitglove, slid it off, and tucked it into her belt. She reached out hesitantly, and put a finger in the spot Frip had cleared. The cold of the rest of the rock was rushing back, but her touch warmed it. She ran her finger around the little depression, pushing the lingering dust around the smooth glass pit. The first human contact the rock had ever known.
“A second chance,” she said, and looked up to Michi’s waiting eyes.