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Live Free or Die: Chapter Six

       Last updated: Wednesday, October 14, 2009 23:09 EDT



    “Well, if it ain’t ole collaborator Tyler himself,” Mr. Haselbauer said.

    “Say that with a smile, partner,” Tyler said. “Can I come in?”

    “If you promise not to take all my maple syrup,” Haselbauer said, opening the door.

    Tyler divested himself of his outer gear in the foyer that was standard for a house of any size in New Hampshire and shook himself as soon as he got into the living room.

    “Da…dang it’s cold out.”

    “You Rebs got thin blood,” Mr. Haselbauer said. “Mabel, I think Mr. Collaborator needs some coffee.”

    “Coming right up,” Mrs. Haselbauer said, bustling in and shaking Tyler’s hand. “Don’t mind him. He’s just riled over Revenuers as usual.”

    “Revenuers coming up from Manchester’s bad enough,” Mr. Haselbauer said, leading the way to the cellar steps. “Up in space is a bit much for my old brain.”

    He led Tyler down into the basement and opened up his gun safe.

    “Got this off a free trader for a jug I had stashed by,” he said, tossing Tyler a rifle. “Works, too. Don’t worry. Isn’t no electronics down here.”

    “Laser?” Tyler asked. It had the sinuous look of Glatun manufacture.

    “Yep,” Mr. Haselbauer said. “Took out a white pine just fine. Made sure it was when the Horvath were in… what’s that term? Retrograde? Somewhat like that. Figure it’s old but it’s what we could get. Actually… got a good few off him. Her. It. Revenuers come up here after our syrup they’re going to get a bit of a surprise. Isn’t going to take out that Horvath ship.”

    “No,” Tyler said, tossing it back. “And it’s not going to save the cities.”

    “Between you and me,” Mr. Haselbauer said. “I would rather keep them standing. Don’t care for Washington and Boston and New York. Don’t mean I want to see them as craters.”

    “No comment,” Tyler said.

    “I sure and hell hope you have a plan, youngster,” Mr. Haselbauer said.

    “I have a plan,” Tyler said. “What I’m hoping is that I don’t have to use it.”



    “So, what do we got?” Tyler asked as he walked into what was laughably called ‘Mission Control.’

    The room was a clutter of wires. Most of the equipment was hand-made and mostly by the group of scientists and lab techs that clustered around the room’s biggest plasma screen.

    “Asteroid 33342 1998 WT,” Dr. Bryan Foster said. The head of the Aten Mining Project, he had degrees in optics, astronomy and geology. He also was available when Tyler went looking for somebody who had a clue what they were doing. His name actually came off of the nearly defunct TradeHard mailing list. He’d once sent Tyler a rather scathing email explaining all the mistakes Tyler was making in orbital mechanics. Shaped something like a hairy Buddha he was in his fifties and ‘just getting started.’ “AKA Icarus 195 AKA a whole bunch of other names that various astronomers have tried to get to stick. We’re just calling it Icarus even though it’s not.”

    “Nickel iron?” Tyler asked. “And is this the best candidate?”

    “Well…” Bryan said, shrugging. “It’s the best candidate that’s in the right orbit right now. It’s got the bonus that it’s one of those really potential nasties some day. What is called a ‘Potentially Hazardous Asteroid.’ Turning it into a bunch of cars would do the world a favor.”

    “What about…” Tyler searched his brain. This wasn’t the asteroid he thought they were looking for. “What’s the name. Starts with an A… Egyptian god…”

    “That’s most of these,” Dr. Foster said. “You mean Apophis?”

    “Yeah,” Tyler said. “I thought that was the big problem asteroid.”

    “It is,” Dr. Foster said. “Potentially. It’s not going to hit earth soon but the way things are going it’s going to hit sooner or later. And when it does, it’s going to be a major hit. So we’ll have to take it out sooner or later. We thought about Apophis. But when you set this up, we put all the mirrors in Venus orbit. Cause you said ‘Put ‘em in Venus orbit we’ll figure out what to do with them later.’”

    “Yeah, so?” Tyler said.

    “Apophis is too close to earth orbit,” Dr. Foster said. “We’ll get around to it. But we threw all this stuff down nearly a quarter AU to the sun. So for right now, we’re too far away to melt Apophis. Being too far away from earth orbit is not normally the sort of thing we’re used to having as a problem with space probes. When we got around to thinking about it, we realized we’d kind of screwed up.”

    “My bad,” Tyler said. “Like you said, we’ll kill it sooner or later. So we’re going to melt… What’s it? Icarus? And can we get useable stuff of it?”

    “Yep. Or rather, probably. Just one problem.”

    “Which is?” Tyler asked, sighing. It all seemed so simple when he was thinking about it. Like, for decades.

    “We don’t know what the hell it is,” Dr. Nathan Bell said. The acknowledged asteroid expert was damned near as big as Mr. Haselbauer. He also had a bit of a southern drawl when he got excited. “It’s physical characteristics are just odd. We don’t know quite what it’s composed of.”

    “Well, we will in a minute,” Dr. Foster said. “Just as soon as we put power on target.”

    “We’ll know the external chemical characteristics, yes,” Dr. Bell said. “But the internal? Until we really heat this puppy up we won’t have a clue.”

    “And it’s going to take either a lot of time or a lot more mirrors to do that,” Dr. Foster said. “The good news about Icarus is that its only three hundred meters across and rotates about every three point seven hours.”

    “And that is good because…?” Tyler asked.

    “We can keep heat on it longer.” Dr. Nathan Houseley said. The metallurgist was a necessity. There were no experts at orbital mining per se. Tall and spare he had a bit of the look of a vulture. “Although the asteroid is currently well within the orbit of Venus, the degree of thermal coefficient necessary for successful melting of the entire, assuming any significant quantity of nickel iron in its composition, is one point six times ten to the sixteenth joules. Given that the current output of the Very Large array is only eight point six time ten to the sixth joules per second, even factoring for the projected rate of increase, subtracting anticipated heat dissipation, it will require some six months to observe noticeable heating much less melting of the material. To achieve even that degree of efficiency will require solid and continuous transfer which requires a low rotational period to prevent convection transfer.”

    And a bit of a tendency to go on.

    “Which means?” Tyler asked.

    “If it rotates fast it cools off fast,” Dr. Bell said. “Also will increase material spalling, probably, and create a cloud of material around the object that will reduce the quality of the beam.”

    “And we’ve got take in five, four…” Dr. Foster said.

    The screen suddenly flashed up a picture of what was clearly an asteroid rotating slowly in space.

    “Oh, beautiful image,” Dr. Foster said. “Where’s our beam?”

    “Impact in two, one…” one of the technicians said. “Beam on.”

    “I…don’t see any difference,” Tyler said. As far as he could see it was still an asteroid rotating in space. “I was expecting an asteroid shattering kaboom.”

    “We don’t actually want an asteroid shattering kaboom,” Dr. Bell said in a distracted tone. “That would cause spalling. See previous explanation.”

    “I’m an impatient person,” Tyler said.

    “Get used to waiting,” Dr. Foster said. “Do we have spectro, yet?”

    “Be about three minutes,” Dr. Bell said. “Fortunately, with this hypernode thingy, we don’t have light-speed lag or it would be…about seven minutes.”

    “I hate waiting,” Tyler said. “What is spectro?”

    “Spectroscopic analysis…” Dr. Houseley said.

    Tyler held up a hand.

    “What is spectro in this context, Dr. Foster?”

    “The beam is putting some heat on target,” Foster said, grinning. “That is going to burn some material which is going to tell us what the outer composition is.”

    “Thank you.”

    “Which as expected is, using a very unscientific term for our visitor, dust,” Dr. Bell said. “Undifferentiated gathered materials. Primarily silica. Some aluminum and titanium. Lots of hydrogen, water and oxygen as expected.”

    “So it’s a sand ball?” Tyler said, grimacing. “A sort of wet sandball? Guys, not to be unscientific or anything, but this is costing me out the butt. I’d really like something other than a ball of sand.”

    “That is the outer shell,” Dr. Foster said. “And as noted, as expected. Okay, since you threw us into this and told us to take it and run, we never had the basic briefing. Asteroids one oh one.”

    “I hate lectures nearly as much,” Tyler said. “But I guess this is important. Don’t, please, go into the whole ‘there’s no such thing as asteroids.’ That’s an asteroid. For the purpose of this company and its nomenclature, an asteroid is something that is mostly rock or at least stuff like rock such as metal and carbon. A comet is something that is mostly ice meaning solid water, ammonia, etcetera. All the planetules and planetesmals and all the rest seems to be people having to publish or perish and not having a good idea. ‘Wow! I’ll come up with a stupid name for stuff that’s already got names!’ And Pluto is a planet, damnit! Asteroid. Rocky thing. Comet. Icy thing. Nine planets. How damned hard does it have to be!”

    “Been trying to do research on our own, have we?” Dr. Foster said with a grin.

    “I hate trying to play catch up, too,” Tyler admitted. “And most asteroids are, sorry Dr. Bell, rock. That is low metallic content, silica, etc. Some are highly carbonaceous. Got bunch a carbon. Can’t we just call those carbon asteroids?”

    “You’re the boss,” Dr. Foster said. “But most asteroids aren’t one thing or another.”

    “I thought conglomerates were rare?”

    “By the ‘I need to publish’ definition of conglomerates,” Dr. Foster said. “But what happened was… You know how they were originally formed?”

    “Left over planet junk,” Tyler said. “Especially the asteroid belt.”

    “Good enough for a C,” Dr. Foster said. “Most of what you define as asteroids probably started in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Some of them are, and I grimace as I say it this way, comets that all the junk boiled off and left behind rock.

    “The asteroid belt is, probably, a planet that either didn’t quite form or sort of formed and then got pulled apart by tidal forces from Jupiter. But with all those rocks drifting around they were bound to collide. When they collided they broke up. Then there were smaller rocks. Which drifted back together and in some cases fused over time. In other cases, true conglomerates, they haven’t quite fused together so they are obviously conglomerate. In addition to rocks, using your nomenclature, there was a lot of stuff, dust if you will, thrown off. Which also drifted onto whatever had microgravity. So you have rocks covered in dust of varying size which then ground together producing more dust and fusing together into the asteroids we’re looking at. The whole process continuously going on along with them hitting various planets, which are for scientific definitions just really big asteroids, and sometimes hitting hard enough to throw dust out of the planetary gravity field to add to the mess for fifteen billion years give or take a billion.”

    “Of which we are now the official cleaner-uppers,” Tyler said.

    “And absolutely damned by the scientific community,” Dr. Bell said, peering at a computer screen. “What my fellow minor planetary object experts have to say about my current job is unprintable. I’ve had death threats.”

    “They’re just sorry they’re not getting paid as much as you,” Tyler said. “Okay, when I was doing my very fast and dirty research I noticed that there weren’t very many good pictures of these things. What’s up with the high-gain color semi-real-time video?”

    “We’re using the VLA,” Dr. Bell said.

    “I thought the purpose of my VLA was to melt asteroids?” Tyler said. “Thus, hopefully, eventually making enough money to keep this lash-up going. Or at least defray the costs. Not that I don’t love pure science for pure science’s sake. By the way, Dr. Bell, if you’ll come up with a list of particularly vocal critics I’ll be glad to gag them with some money. Basic research into these things is actually a wise investment.”

    “I’ll send you an email,” Dr. Bell said. “But we have to look at what we’re doing. We currently have forty-two VLA mirrors and two collectors up. We’re using seven of the primary mirrors and one collector for take. The VLA mirrors are angled to reflect the view of the object to the collector. The collector is pointed at a camera. We had to buy the camera, by the way.”

    “It was originally purposed for a satellite,” Dr. Foster said. “The company went bust when one of their others was zapped by our Horvath friends. It was cheap. Comparatively.”

    “Over or under a mil?” Tyler said. “Never mind. I get it. Any chance of using it for general astronomical research? As I understand it, the VLA is a great telescope. Potentially.”

    “I thought you wanted to heat up asteroids?” Dr. Foster said. “It would make a great telescope. Even with the relatively low quality of the VLA mirrors, the final take would be awesome. Right now we’ve got thirty-three hundred square meters of space mirror. That’s the equivalent of about nine hundred Hubbles. Cut that by maybe ten percent for the quality and you’re still talking about the most powerful telescope ever created. One of the bitches we’re getting is that we’re using all this scope power for, sorry, industrial purposes.”

    “Which, in time, is going to pay for one hell of a scope,” Tyler said. “We getting anything but dust?”

    “This is going to take time,” Dr. Bell said, patiently.

    “I’m still unsure about the entire exercise,” Dr. Houseley said. “We can heat the material, but we can’t form it. And how, exactly, are we going to get it to earth based industry?”

    “One thing at a time,” Tyler said. “First we have to develop the basic techniques. Not to mention find an asteroid that’s not just a ball of sand.”

    “Still no real clue what it is,” Dr. Bell said. “It’s more than sand, though. Getting some definite carbon readings.”

    “Unless it’s hydrocarbon doesn’t do me much good,” Tyler said. “As to Dr. Houseley’s question. Assume a more or less consistent nickel iron asteroid.”

    “Good luck,” Dr. Foster said. “But I’ll accept your assumption for the purposes of discussion.”

    “Thank you so much, Dr. Foster,” Tyler said, grinning. “The Transvaal formations are from a nickel iron asteroid as are the Sudbury complexes.”

    “I’m an expert in nickel mining, sir,” Dr. Houseley said, irritably. “I’m aware of that.”

    “You’re also a metallurgist and know that neither composition is pure nickel iron. But have you thought about the actual method of their formation? A ball of nickel iron and…other stuff…”

    “Conglomerate,” Dr. Foster said.

    “Came screaming in through the atmosphere. It was heated. The more volatile material was mostly burned off on reentry. What was left was the high melting temperature materials. Nickel. Iron. Platinum group. Etcetera.”

    “Accepted,” Dr. Houseley said.

    “What we are doing is a replica of that,” Tyler said. “Sort of. The asteroid is spinning. As it heats the lowest volatility material will… What was that term, Dr. Foster?”

    “Sublimate, mostly.”

    “Basically, it will burn off. And spall as Dr. Bell put it. Chunks will be blown out by the low volatile material beneath. The removal of the low volatiles, the higher portions of the periodic table in general, will permit contraction of the high melting, generally denser, materials. With the rotation what should be formed in time is a compact ball of metal. As it heats more, the lowest melting point materials will creep to the outside.”

    “I see,” Dr. Houseley said. “Centripetal thermal smelting.”

    “Exactly,” Tyler said. “By the time it’s heated up enough to be worth pulling stuff off, I should have some Glatun space bots here to do the pulling. Then, a bit like pulling taffy, we’ll start pulling off the valuable materials. The main thing I’m actually worried about is losing the copper and tin with the silica.”

    “Speaking of which,” Dr. Bell said. “Just got a hit of selenium. There is tin in it. Was. Well, it’s still probably orbiting but as finely divided powder and gases. Ditto aluminum now. I think I know what this thing is made of.”

    “What?” Dr. Foster asked, craning over his shoulder.

    “Bloody damned everything,” Dr. Bell said. “We’re starting to run the periodic table here. It really is a conglomerate. It’s mostly low volatiles so far, obviously. As D… Mr. Tyler just pointed out, the melting point of silica and copper, which just turned up, isn’t that different.”

    “Yeah,” Tyler said with a sigh. “I was afraid of losing all the low volatiles.”

    “Fear not,” Dr. Bell said. “Based on what we’re getting so far and the overall recorded mass, it’s a conglomerate that’s about 75% mixed low-densities by weight.”

    “That’s not too great,” Tyler said.

    “It’s going to make a great paper,” Dr. Bell said, excitedly. “ ‘Minor planet composition determination by solar pumped spectroscopy’ has a nice ring don’t you think?”

    “I’m not doing this to keep your professional reputation intact,” Tyler said. “Does this thing have any significant amount of useable metals?”

    “Not really,” Dr. Bell said. “I mean, it’s got metal. But not a lot. I think we need a better asteroid.”“Hell. Well, on that note, I’m going to be late for a meeting.”




    “Mr. Vernon, it’s a pleasure to meet you at last.”

    “And I you, Mr. President,” Tyler said, taking the indicated seat. Sitting in the Oval Office was a long way from cutting logs.

    “I understand you are not a fan, though,” the President said, giving Tyler a charming grin.

    “You’re the President of the United States,” Tyler said. “I am what could be considered the loyal opposition. I dislike your policies but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that you are the President with all that entails. Including automatic loyalty to the position within the constraints of being a citizen.”

    “I believe the term that my staff came up with was ‘Communist, terrorist-loving danger-to-the-Republic with delusions of grandeur.’”

    “Well, I’ll admit I didn’t vote for you,” Tyler said. “But the choices were pretty sparse on the ground, period. I take it this is not a test of my loyalty to you as a person as opposed to as our Chief Executive. Because if so, we might as well withdraw to corners and start the count.”

    “Not at all,” the President said. “But you have to admit you do seem to keep putting your foot into messes.”

    “I prefer to think of it as giving my government bargaining chips,” Tyler said. “We now have regular…ish trade with the Glatun. We have something resembling a balance of trade. One that is so far very favorable to the world and this nation in particular.”

    “The Horvath are now demanding all of our, mostly your, maple syrup,” the President said. “And now you’ve discovered something that has their appetite even more whetted. Whereas it may all be fun and games for you, Mr. Vernon, I am President of this entire nation. If the Horvath start destroying our cities it will not be Tyler Vernon that will have to comfort the grieving.”

    “And Tyler Vernon didn’t run for office,” Tyler said, smiling thinly. “In case nobody covered this in history class, when you work to get into the chair you’re occupying, that comes with a lot of responsibility. That’s why you get perks like a car and driver and your own airplane. Not to mention a nice crash pad.”

    “Can we cut the verbal fencing?” the President asked.


    “You’re really upsetting the Horvath,” the President said.

    “Are we reasonably secure?” Tyler asked.

    “We are, as far as can be determined, very secure,” the President said. “One of the things we’ve been using the credits we’ve gotten for is getting something resembling security back in our systems.”

    “Which, I’m sure doesn’t upset the Horvath at all,” Tyler said. “And I’m planning on upsetting them even more.”

    “Why in God’s name?” the President said, angrily. “Damnit, Vernon, this is not a game! There are people’s lives at stake. Millions of people’s lives at stake.”

    “Yes, there are,” Tyler said. “And I’m fully cognizant of that. I’m going to do my level best, am doing my level best, to keep them alive. But there is more to life than simple existence, Mr. President. Sorry, but this country was not founded on existing under tyranny. Quite the opposite.”

    “That is a very nice sentiment,” the President said. “But in the Revolutionary War, the nation did not face extermination.”

    “Did it not?” Tyler asked. “ ‘Those who would surrender essential liberties for a little temporary security shall receive neither security nor liberty.’ That gets thrown around a lot in terms of whether we incarcerate terrorists, tap communications, what we’re allowed to do with our sexual organs. Essential liberties before the Horvath used to mean, or seem to mean, whether we had the right to get drunk on a flight and insult stewardesses. Whether marriage was between any two people whatever their gender! But what Ben Franklin meant by security was whether your home was going to be burned to the ground. Whether you were going to be killed without rhyme nor reason. Whether property and businesses would be seized. This is what essential liberties really mean, Mr. President. And what temporary security really means. And we have given up essential liberties for temporary security and how very secure do you feel, Mr. President? Sitting at ground zero of Horvath target number one? How secure?”

    “Then do you have a plan to get the Horvath from the sky?” the President asked, angrily. “Because the Joint Chiefs are the people who are hottest on my neck to get you under control. They don’t want to lock you up, they want to bury you!”

    “I’ve got about as much of a plan as the Continental Congress had in 1775,” Tyler said.

    “And that is…?”

    “Win or go down fighting.”

    “That’s suicide,” the President said. “You’re nuts.”

    “‘Our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.’ They want the maple syrup, let them send their own troops down. And then things will get really hot.”

    “They won’t send their troops,” the President said, touching a folder.

    “Oh,” Tyler said as if gut punched. “You have to be kidding! That is low. Not to mention unconstitutional.”

    “I’ll give you a quote,” the President said. “ ‘The Constitution is a document, not a suicide pact.’ We’ve been in…close negotiations. Send in our troops and get the maple syrup or they start with DC and work their way down a list.”

    “So are your troops planning on extracting, and processing mind you, the maple syrup?”

    “If necessary,” the President said. “The Pentagon can come up with the most amazing plans on the spur of the moment. We are hoping for widespread support as a patriotic gesture.”

    “You need to look up the definition of patriotism,” Tyler said. “Although you’d probably have to use a dictionary from before the PC era. So am I under arrest to be delivered to our benefactors or am I free to go?”

    “I’m hoping for your support in this necessary action,” the President said.

    “Will you settle for neutrality?” Tyler said. “ ‘While I, personally, am grieved by this gesture by our government, any armed resistance would be both counter-productive and mean that fine Americans would simply be killing other fine Americans. It’s really a very sad day.’”


    “Thank you. I used to write.”

    “I’m quite serious about sending in troops.”

    “I’m sure you are. And I’m quite serious that it will be a sad day.”

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