Sea of Diamond
(First draft. Please excuse the grammar and spelling which I suck at.)
“Keen, can you hear me?” Zay’s voice crackled on the radio. Keen didn’t hear any rumbling in the background so knew Zay had shut the rock carver down.
“Yeah, your channel’s open,” Keen radioed back.
Zay’s voice came back over the channel, “I got a full bale of dust that needs to be tugged out of here. I’ve been burning the grinding heads past the yellow line trying to get as much out of the diamonds as I can, but we better change the cutter heads now, so I don’t mess up the metal substrate.”
“You think Wayne and the new guy can replace the heads?” Keen asked.
“Sure. Wayne’s good and the new guy seams okay. Send ‘em over.”
Keen flew the yard-tug around the large maintenance shed built on the carved rock that was the counterbalancing end to the mining co-op’s rotating hab’.
He could see Wayne and the new guy in their space suits cutting off pieces of an ice asteroid, getting ready to put them into the melter that would separate the frozen gases from the water.
The ammonia and carbon dioxide gases would go to the storage tanks for sale, but the co-op would keep the water for its own use.
He switched over to their channel and radioed, “Hey Wayne could you guys get off that job a bit and get the grit head scaffolding for Zay’s machine and change his grinding heads?”
”Sure boss, right a way,” Wayne radioed.
Keen was glad he had the ice asteroid and two more like it in the co-op’s rock pile a kilometer away. In the old days there were a lot of the water rich Mars Trojan asteroids in this area of the Lagrange point L4, but Mars had bought most of them long ago and sent them crashing into her surface, trying to terraform the planet.
He had always thought it was too bad Mars had gotten so many of the ice rich asteroids. They were more valuable in the melter, to make water and oxygen for the few habs’ left in the Trojan belt, then the little good they did Mars.
Wayne was on the radio, “Mr. Benton we have the grit head scaffolding loaded and we’re headed to Zay’s tunnel grinder, but I thought I’d let you know this is the last set of cutter heads down here. Andy said he’d have some more re-gritted, I guess they’re still in your shop in the hab’.”
“Good job letting me know, I’ll look into it,” Keen radioed back.
“Okay, thanks boss.”
He was lucky to have conscientious workers like Wayne and Zay. He didn’t know yet about the new guy, but the guy seemed to have a lot of enthusiasm.
He headed his tug over to the tunnel grinder to pull the bale of dust sacked in its carbon fiber bag out of its bay and hook it to the barge of seven already tied up. Two more after this one and the co-op could ship out the ten-bale load and get paid.
There were 29 members of the small co-op. A few lived and here at the co-op’s hab’ like his brother Andy and he did, but most, especially the married ones, lived almost an hour away on the larger and more exciting UJ7 hab’.
That is if an isolated two kilometer sized asteroid that was rotating, to give its four thousand inhabitants in a small ring of buildings artificially gravity, could be called exciting. Even with the phased graviton drive it took over a day to get from UJ7 to Mars.
Keen lined up his yard-tug to the dust bale and radioed, “Ok Zay I’m in position for you to eject the dust bale.”
“Here we go,” Zay said. He moved the hydraulic lever and ejected the hundred meter long bale or ground asteroid rock out towards the seven already tied up.
The rock grinder did the work of breaking the bale’s inertia and Keen just had to guide the bale and slow it down with the yard-tug enough that wouldn’t bounce much when it hit the other bale’s springs.
Keen was a pretty good pilot in his day and flying a yard-tug was no big deal, but he felt a certain amount of pride in how softly he guided the bale against the springs and how little it bounced.
“Zay? You there?” he said on his radio.
“Yeah I hear you.”
“I think I’ll come over and check out where you’re at on the twin cable project.”
“Great, sounds good. I got a little downtime and it would be nice to have someone to talk to.”
Keen flew towards the rock tunneling machine where Zay was carving on a kilometer sized block of asteroid. The project was a twin cable rotating hab’, where two identical weighted asteroids were carved, then each side would be hooked by a cable to a center stone that would hook the two hollowed out asteroids together.
It was necessary to rotate the hab’ rocks in a large circle, so the rotation wouldn’t make the inhabitants dizzy. Especially if the habs’ were to spin fast enough to make a whole G-force.
In the distance he could see the finished half of the pair. It was fat and rounded on one end and it came up to a point on the side were the cable attached. The carved rock looked something like a huge old mercury space capsule that he had seen in old videos. Except on the tapered cone part there was carved an intricate lattice design where the space-glass windows fit.
Too bad the price of the grit diamonds needed for the cutter heads was so high. The price went up constantly. Keen didn’t think it wasn’t the lack of grit diamonds that caused the price to increase; he was sure it was because De Beers had gotten into the indusial diamond business.
Over a hundred years ago De Beers had lost its monopoly on the diamond trade. Huge finds of diamonds had been found in Australia and in Canada. Lands they didn’t control. For decades the diamond market had been subject only to supply and demand.
But fifteen years ago shrewd, and some say underhanded, deals had put de Beers back in control. And not only of the gem quality stones, but also in control of the indusial grade diamonds. And since ever since then the grit diamond price had been raising steadily. Now the cost of grit for the carving heads was so high asteroid carving was becoming a dying art.
Keen’s approach set off the radar warning bell and he quickly slowed down. He laughed a little. Just the thought of De Beers had made him hit the speed lever too hard.
Fifty years ago when the phased graviton drive was developed, and the drive put a magnetic force-field around the ship that protected it from micro-meteorites, truly high speeds were reached and the solar system really opened up.
But more importantly, for the asteroid carving business anyway, the magnetic shield the drives generated made it possible to enter the gas giant’s mantle under its atmosphere.
Specially designed ships could enter the superheated mantel of Neptune and the ships harvested the diamonds that had been known for over a hundred years to rain down from its outer mantle. There were some good diamonds, but most of the diamonds had inclusions of hydrocarbons and other flaws. However, they were perfect for industrial grit.
The price of carving cutters dropped to ten percent what they used to cost and the tunnel borers cut the asteroids day and night. But that didn’t last once De Beers had the whole grit market. Since then the grit price had never stopped going up and now there were few tunnel machines that could afford to carve.
In fact it was the dust from the grinding that kept the co-op in business. Out in the asteroid belt proper, towards Jupiter, they just crushed up the asteroids with tungsten-carbide rollers into gravel and cemented the rubble unto huge ten kilometer sized wheels. But they still needed the dust to make the cement. Dust was the only thing that made asteroid carving viable.
Keen attached the yard-tug to the tunnel carver’s hatch, and then he opened it and pushed over to where Zay was floating upside-down and looking at the large carving blueprints stuck with magnetic paper to the metal table.
Zay looked puzzled and said, “I’m wondering what’s going on. On the other hab’ the floor side was flat but on this hab’ there is a huge hole on the gravity floor side. It’s really going to throw the weight off. The specks are pretty tight, less then one half percent, but the two halves will be off at least ten percent or more with the different carved floors.”
Keen slid into one of the table’s chairs, put the safety float bar across his lap, and looked at where Zay was pointing.
“I see what you mean,” Keen ran his finger down the title block, but the information wasn’t there. “We have the master print in the hab’ and there it’s noted that one floor side is filled with water and that will balance the mass.”
Keen looked at Zay’s upside down face, that had his noise muffs on a string floating off to one side and said, “They should have put that info on your carving prints, guess someone screwed up.”
“A lake?” Zay said. “That’s a pretty deep lake. The floor’s a hundred and fifty meters lower then the other side.”
“It’s an aquarium, their going to fill it with salt water, scuba dive and things like that.”
“Scuba dive on a hab’?” Zay laughed sounding surprised, sounds pretty fancy for Mars.
“It’s not for Mars, it goes around Venus. I guess with the gene-spliced mats of algae they have floating on their clouds, and blocking the sun, the place is cooling down really fast.”
“They have been buying a lot of carbon bagged hydrogen from Jupiter and using the H2 for the Bosch reaction and turning their CO2 into water and carbon. I hear they’re even making their own carbon bags for the hydrogen.”
“Must be nice to be where the money is,” Keen said thoughtfully. “Out here on Mars we thought we were going to be the first successful terraformed planet, but Venus might beat us.”
“We’re not from Mars,” Zay said defensively, “We’re from the Trojan belt. We’re Trojans.”
Keen laughed, “Maybe, but we’re in Mars’s orbit and to the rest of the solar system we’re Martians.”
The clanking coming through the tunneler’s hull from Wayne and the new guy putting on the cutters stopped for a moment, and Keen radioed out to them, “How you guys doing.”
“All most done. Just the alignment left.”
“Just checking. You guys are doing great.”
Zay took the opportunity to change the subject and said, “Andy told us ol’ Bill Heart is coming by your hab’ tonight. He’s got some sweet deal on mining grit diamonds on Neptune and the guys and I were wondering about getting in with our pension funds.”
William Heart was a boyhood friend of Keen and his brother and they used to hang out together in high school. The guy always had something going on. He had been closer to Andy and Keen had always been leery of him.
“The last time we pressurized the maintenance shed wasn’t it was for that old classic space ship of his?” Keen asked. “Isn’t he still just making interest payments to the co-op on that bill?”
“No, he paid that off in full a few months back. I think might be doing really good. Andy even canceled the grit order the co-op had from De Beers because Heart gave him a better price. He even let Andy have eighty kilos on credit.”
“Heart gave us eighty kilos of grit on credit?” Keen laughed. “Now that’s a change for sure.”
Keen asked, “You sure he mined them? It takes a really special ship to go under a gas mantel. How did he get one?”
“He got in on a deal with a company called ‘Neptune Mining’. There is a new solar system law called ‘The Freedom of Industry Act’ and I guess it forced De Beers to lighten up and let other people mine on Neptune. De Beers even sold the company one of their older mantel ships.”
“Really?” Keen was interested. He wondered if this would bring the grit price down.
Zay said, “Ask Andy about it and find out from Bill tonight what the deal is. Tomorrow night the guys and I are going to a Neptune Mining’s dinner party at the UJ7 hab’. It’s all free. We just have to set through the hour long promotion speech. And then it’s dancing with the Mars girls!”
Zay tried to do some dance moves, but upside down and in weightlessness his moves didn’t look that good to Keen and he laughed, “Even Mars girls aren’t going to go dancing with those moves.”
“Well ya never know tell ya try it.” Zay said good naturedly, He put his noise muffs over his ears and said, “Time to crank up the grinder, its quiet out in space, but inside this grinder there’s a hell of a racket.”
Keen flew the yard-tug to its hatch on the co-op’s spinning hab’. The co-op’s hab’ wasn’t a whole wheel, just a small portion of one. It looked like a big hammer as it spun around its large stone counter weight. It took a big hunk of asteroid to hold a partial wheel, but when the hab’ was built there were plenty of asteroids around, so that wasn’t a problem.
Keen smelled something cooking when got out of the yard-tug and into the living quarters; a small walled off area that was separate from the grinding head repair shop. Doubling up on living and shop space saved them quite a bit of rent money.
Andy was a good cook and Keen wondered if it was lunch Andy was making. He could hear Andy singing in the kitchen. If it could be called singing, Andy couldn’t carry a tune.
“It’s raining diamonds - on the last planet from the sun. It’s raining diamonds - and I’m going to get me some. It’s raining diamonds…”
Keen cut Andy off, “Knock off the howling, it sounds horrible.”
“It’s raining diamonds…” Andy started in again.
Keen made a fist and said, “It’s going to start raining knuckles if you keep it up.” He knew the reason Andy had made up the diamond song and was singing, it had to do with William Heart’s diamond offer.
“Okay, okay,” Andy said.
“Are you cooking lunch?” Keen asked hopefully, he didn’t want to heat-wave a ready-to-go meal.
“No. Its dinner and it’s not even close to being ready to eat.”
“Didn’t think so,” Keen muttered and walked into their shop. The air smelled of diamond dust, oil, and solvents. The filters kept the smell out of the living quarters, but the shop always had the odor.
Keen was glad to see three sets of finished cutter blades that had been re-gritted. The floor and benches had a fine layer of dust on them from the work and Keen said, “I see you didn’t vacuum up.”
“Been busy,” came the answer through the shop door.
“Research on what,” Keen said, but he thought he knew the answer.
Andy came through the door and said, “What if we could salvage grit from De Beers, the stuff they throw away. It wouldn’t really be stealing and maybe not even illegal.”
“So that’s how you got a better deal from Bill, you bought grit he stole,” Keen said a little upset. Not that he really cared about De Beers being ripped off. He just didn’t like it since it involved Bill Heart.
“No.” Andy said, “The eighty kilos of grit diamonds I got from Bill is completely up and up, I got the Neptune’s custom’s papers and everything.”
“So what are you talking about, De Beers throwing away grit?”
“It seems that when De Beers brings up the grit loads about 18 percent of the time the cargo retrieval rocket doesn’t latch properly and the container of grit diamonds is lost and crashers back into the planet.”
“But William, you know he wants to be called William now he’s an officer in Neptune Mining, sent me the papers and it’s all a planed maneuver. When they bring out the grit container it goes into orbit and Neptune customs comes out, and they weigh the load, and De Beers pays the taxes. But when their latch system fails the retrieval rocket just flies back to the base since there is no container of diamonds for customs to weigh.”
“But what really happens is a small portion of the container actually does stay with the retrieval rocket and it doesn’t go through customs. William thinks that somehow they sort the diamonds remotely or maybe they go lower in the mantle and get bigger stones.”
“They just dump the grit diamonds because they make so much more money on the gem quality diamonds, since they don’t even pay taxes on them. It also keeps the grit price high, with less of the industrial diamond on the market.”
“That does sound like De Beers all right,” muttered Keen, “Still don’t I see how that helps William.”
“The idea is they take their ship and put some grapples on it and follow the cargo ship up, and if the latch doesn’t catch and De Beers dumps the container back into the planet we catch the container and we keep it as salvage.”
“We?” Said Keen, “Who’s this we?”
“The co-op. We get the contract on selling the diamond grit.”
“But it is still illegal. The grit doesn’t go through customs and it isn’t taxed. There wouldn’t be any paperwork on the diamonds.”
“We got that figured out. What happens is our ship isn’t as efficient as the new ones so the cost ratio isn’t real good. What we do is put some of the salvaged grit diamonds on the ship before it makes its run. Then we show customs the load we mine and the extra ones we took from the salvaged container.”
“Everybody wins. Customs gets the taxes on the grit diamonds that would have been thrown away. We get the salvage and De Beers doesn’t even know that their diamonds have been salvaged.”
“I don’t know. You’re saying ‘we’ a lot. You got us in already?”
“No, not really. Not yet, maybe tonight. But you know what they say. There’s a liquid sea of diamond deep in Neptune’s core where diamond icebergs float and sparkling diamonds rain from its sky.”
“Now you’re a crappy poet,” Keen said, holding up his knuckles to make sure Andy didn’t start to sing.
“Alright I’ll give it a chance. Where’s the eighty kilos you say we got the paperwork for?”
”It’s on the floor right next to the grit-crusher.”
Keen picked up the carbon box with the woven tape still holding the flaps sealed.
He said, “I see you didn’t open it yet.”
“Thought we would do that together.”
Keen didn’t cut the tap he just looked at the custom’s documents. He’d seen the paperwork lots of time before and this looked like the real thing.
“The papers look good, but I guess they could be foraged. Maybe I should call and get a confirmation number.”
“Go ahead. I already did that just to be sure. Its real, these stones are the ones they mined with their ship. Just open the box already.”
“Okay I will. You’re so antsy,” Keen teased.
He took out his blade and cut the woven tape and dumped about a forth of the stones on the heavy metal plate of the grit-cushier. They were Neptune grit diamonds alright. He could tell by the streaked look of the hydrocarbon inclusions, but there were a lot more whitish ones then in the regular De Beers’ lots.
The diamonds were pitted and the surface rough from the turbulent atmosphere where the stones were created. In the regular runs from De Beers some of the larger white ones had a little clear area smoothed out, where they had been polished and looked inside with a magnifying loop, to see if they could be cut into gem quality stones.
Andy was always pulling out his loop and looking into the polished area to see if the stone could be salved as a gem. By law any diamond over two carts had to have an engraved serial number provided by De Beers.
You could buy serial numbers from them, but you had to have evidence of where the diamond came from and even if a good one slipped by it would have ‘salvaged from a grit lot’ on its certificate. That would devalue the diamond’s price as a gemstone, since what rich person would try to give his girl a grit diamond?
He had seen some one-caret stones that had some flaws, but still had some gem market value, but even without the serial requirement no diamond dealer would risk his reputation with salvaged grit.
Plus they didn’t have any faceting wheels to make the gems. They just had the grit-crusher for working with diamonds. Keen knew Andy had a stash of stones that Andy thought he would someday facet. Keen knew Andy would never do it, but he let him stash them anyway figuring he could always turn them into grit in an emergency.
Andy was at a grit wheel they used to polish metal and was buffing a window in one of the white stones. He got his loop out and peered in the stone.
“Wow,” Andy said. “This isn’t bad. Bet you could get a clear caret out of this one.”
“Who’s going to buy a grit-salvaged diamond?” Keen said unimpressed, but still thinking there were a lot of white stones in William’s lot.
“Who says they’re grit salvaged? We pull ‘em out before the grit certificate. That’s what De Beers does.”
“Yes… I guess you do have a point about that,” Keen said, starting to get interested in William’s mining company.
“Tell ya what let’s get those papers he sent you, and look over the expenses. Maybe this could work. If we had the supply we can sell grit all day long. Plus with that big maintenance shed we could pressurized it and do a lot of re-gritting for other carvers, if we had the industrial stones.”
“Ok we’ll look at the papers, but I don’t think your going to like the idea as much after you see the numbers,” Andy said.
Andy was right about that. Keen hated the idea after he saw the expenses and what it cost to make a mantle run. And the fact they only got two or three hundred kilos per run.
“It’s ridiculous,” Keen said to Andy looking at the balance numbers. “See the cost per run? William lost a lot of money selling us those eighty kilos.”
“The runs will get bigger once we get more experience. Then the numbers will look better.”
“No way. You could get ten times the yield and it wouldn’t be enough. Never will work. The company will have to take the dumped cargo. It can’t make enough money any other way.”
“So you think we could take the dumped grit containers?”
“I don’t know. Who care about De Beers, but it would have to be legal grit. It wouldn’t be fair to our customers to sell it without a certificate. I guess if we had that it would be legal.”
“So you’ll talk to William about salvaging the grit containers when he gets here?”
“Yes I’ll talk to him, but I’m grinding the eighty kilos we have into grit right now. I don’t want to take the chance he will want the stones back.”
Keen turned on the grit-crusher and the crushing wheels made their growling sound as Keen pushed the diamonds down the machines opening to the wheels, crushing the stones into diamond grit.
However he did take the larger whitish stones out and threw them into a plastic cup, just in case they could be gemstones.
William was all excited and gushing about his deal with Neptune Mining. But he was completely candid about how the company was going to make the money.
“I don’t see any moral or legal reason that salvaging the grit containers is wrong. The grit is lost back to the planet because De Beers is stealing the taxes and driving up the industrial price of grit.”
“We are actually making things better and more legal by salvaging the containers. It will mean more taxes for customs. And while the volume won’t really be enough to bring the grit price down where it should be, the effect of additional industrial diamonds might have some sociological effect to stabilize the price.”
Keen had begun to rethink his negative opinion of William since had been so honest about everything.
He asked William, “So there has to be a downside here somewhere what do you think that is?”
“From all indications I see with the personal in Neptune Mining is that with enough money they would take on De Beers and see if they can get them out of industrial diamonds,” said William.
“It’s really two types of business. And if De Beers’ wants to play their hording game with the gem market that’s fine, it only affects people that are buying because they want to impress other people. But the industrial side is different, it affects manufacturing and I think that’s wrong.”
But you asked about the downside it appears some of the grit containers have been salvaged before and we can’t find out who did it or why. My personal feeling is that it’s low level mangers tiring to make some personal money, but we don’t know for sure. That’s the only wild card I see.”
“Well, William I must say I’m with you on the fact the industrial side of diamonds is different then the gem side and I like your guts to take on De Beers,” said Keen.
“Are we in, Keen? Are we in?” asked Andy excitedly.
“Yaeh, I guess we are. Probably never get another shot at that greedy company,” said Keen.
Andy said to William, “This is great isn’t it? We’ll be at the privet meeting after the dinner tomorrow.”
“Ok sound good to me,” said William as he got ready to go back to the UJ7 hab’.
The promotion dinner had gone well. Keen could tell ‘Neptune Mining’ had made a lot on money on stock sales tonight. The food was excellent and the spin on the profit numbers was so convincing he would have bought in, if he didn’t know the truth.
Everyone had gone, including Zay and the rest of his crew that had come for the free dinner. Keen knew they were out whooping it up at some dance club hoping to meet some Mars’ girls. He’d have to be sure to warn his crew not to move their pension plans to ‘Neptune Mining’ stock.
They were in a small glassed in room adjacent to the larger empty dinning room where they had their meal. This was a privet meeting that Williams had set up with him and his brother to discuss the real way the mining company was going to make its money.
One of the presenters, a kid who had a long string of hair that he had to keep brushing away from his eyes, was setting up a view screen. Keen had noticed the guy all night pulling up the wave of hair that constantly fell in his eyes.
He would never let his hair fall like that, but it had been a long time since he had hair close enough to his forehead to get in his eyes anyway. Also he didn’t like the way the kid held his wrists. In the receiving line the guy held up his limp hand like a dead fish. Keen had made sure he didn’t shake the kid’s hand.
The kid waved his limp wrist at the room sensor light and the glass went black and then the light dimmed to nothing. The video came on with images of the cargo ship catching the grit diamond container. Keen was shocked at the way the mining company’s ship was tailing the cargo ship. It was right up next to the fins of the other ship. Even without sound the video looked frightening.
The kid was pointing with his laser dot at the tailgating ship. “You can see here that the chase ship has to stay close to cargo ship in order to stay out of the booster’s flames. The cargo retriever ship uses a chemical propellant at this point to get the extra speed needed to lift the grit container into orbit.”
Keen looked at the video and was impressed with whoever was flying the chase ship. To fly like that the pilot must have microsecond reactions and nerves of steel. That was a sure fact.
“Here the rocket boosted ship comes in close contact with the grit container and as you can see the catch cable is missed. This miss doesn’t look accidental,” the laser dot was pointing to where the latch missed the cable.
And it didn’t look accidental. The latch clearly could have caught the cable it just wasn’t programmed to do so.
“Now right here is where a small top portion of the grit cargo container has attached itself to the return rocket and the grit container is falling away,” the laser light fluttered around the important parts of the image.
Again it was clear the maneuvers were planed and not accentual. Then the kid said, “At this point I broke off chase with the return cargo ship and followed the falling path of the container towards the planet’s core.”
‘I broke off… This kid was the pilot?’ Keen was amazed, he couldn’t understand how the kid managed hold on to a fork, let alone pilot a ship the way he saw in the video. He looked at the guy again and he still didn’t believe it.
The kid was still talking, “One important thing must be mentioned. We have evidence that about one time in twenty the missed grit container is actually recovered somewhere in its path to the planet.”
“We’re not sure if it is some low level rouge managers that are taking advantage of De Beers making some of its grit containers fall back to the planet, like we are going to do, or if it is something the top managers are doing for extra non-taxed profit.”
“In any case the odds are only five percent that we will have to deal with someone knowing we have taken the grit container. If it is rouge cowboy managers then top management will never know. Otherwise we will have to cross that bridge if it comes to us.”
“Ok,” the kid waved at the sensor and the lights came back on. ‘That’s how it works. We will give your mining co-op 28 percent of the grit by weight to sell our product. Of course we will sort through the diamonds just like De Beers and keep the gemstones. However the deal is by weight, so your co-op will actually get more then 28 percent of the grit.”
“Mr. Heart tells us you have a pressurized maintenance shed large enough to fit our ship. We would like to use it so we can modify our ship with the grapples to snag the grit container’s cable. We have the engineering plans already drawn up and would like to have your co-op do the work. You know, keep everything in one place. It will help keep this as secret as possible.”
Keen wanted to ask the kid if he really flew the chase ship. And he must have had the look of a question in his face that the kid misread.
“Of course we will pay cash up front for your help in modifying our ship.”
But what Keen really wanted to ask was if the kid could really be the pilot that had the microsecond reflexes.
the planet Neptune loamed huge in the space ship’s window. Keen had seen Jupiter and Saturn and they were larger, but Jupiter’s colorful swirls made the planet a happy giant and Saturn’s rings and pastel stripes made her a regal lady.
But Neptune was an angry planet and it looked just plain nasty. Its dark streaming clouds didn’t even try to hide its violent two-thousand kilometers an hour wind. Plus at the other planets he wasn’t on a ship plunging 7000 kilometers into the gas giants crushing core.
The modifications had gone smooth at the mining co-op’s shed. He had done most of the testing of the cable grapples. Everyone had said how good he was at using the grapples and somehow he had let it go to his head and they talked him into doing it for real. He looked the irate planet and realized what a mistake his pride had made.
“This is it folks,” said the kid pilot with the falling hair.
“We’ll take a short straight run below where the pressure rains the diamonds to make sure our telemetry conforms to our filed flight plan. After that we turn to match up with the grit cargo ship. When we turn it’s going to get bumpy, so get ready to hold on.”
The pilot’s words were mater of fact and reassuring. Keen had learned the pilot’s name was Alvin and had seen more videos of his flights into Neptune’s core. The guy was good, really good, but still… Keen felt the ship’s violent motion, its hull buffeted by the intense winds as they plummeted down.
The motion changed and was less turbulent once they submerged into the planet’s inner mantle. But it was just as frightening. Keen was terrified by the sense of the planet’s immense power as its superheated force tore at the ships magnetic shield and attempted to rip the ship apart.
Alvin put the scoop down, to catch the diamonds, and the ship’s hull shook violently. Keen was positive Neptune realized the lowered magnetic net was an aerodynamic weakness the planet could exploit.
In the images from the camera mounted on the net’s supports he saw tens of thousands of raining diamonds impacting the ship’s protective shield. The stones exploded off the ship’s hull in balls of light, and only a few were captured in the magnetic collecting net.
I wasn’t raining diamonds on Neptune it was a vicious hail of rock.
The caption calmly informed the crew, “We are now retracting the net. Hold on because there will be a pretty strong G-force in a moment.” He had hardly spoken the words before Keen felt his internal organs move up to his mouth as the ship turned.
He choked it down. His time was almost here and he couldn’t mess this up. The ship left the mantel and buffeted its way back up into the violent winds.
He followed the check list and said his rehearsed line, hoping his voice didn’t crack, “Grapple control on. Computer link confirmed. Grapple ready.”
He watched the time-table and the control lights on his panel’s screen, his eye on the clock with its digits moving down to his moment of action. Under his breath he muttered, “Please, please don’t let me screw this up.”
His subconscious prayed that this run would be the time de Beers dumped the grit container. Now that he knew what the ride was like into Neptune’s core he could never take it again.
“Grapple control ready, the target is on visual,” the professional sound of the Captain calmed him some.
Keen desperately looked at the jittering images on his screen. He tried to determine the cargo ship’s image from of billowing clouds of gas and swirling patterns. Finally, he saw the shape he was looking for.
The cargo ship shot past them, Alvin flew their ship right up next to the tail fins of the other ship, staying above the flames that were roaring from its rocket chambers. Keen felt their ship, not only shaken from Neptune’s winds, but also from the turbulence of the cargo ship’s flames.
To Keen’s relief the cargo ship’s grab at the container’s carbon cable failed and its small top package lodged in the cargo return ship, just like he had seen in the videos.
Alvin guided the ship out of the rocket flames and into the position for Keen to grabble the grit container’s cable. Keen got one side on quickly, but he couldn’t snag the other. When the free grapple end bounced off the container, it pushed back and telescoped the arm, making it too short to reach the catch point.
Fear gripped Keen, if the arm was bent and he couldn’t snag the other side, or couldn’t get the latched side free, they would go down with container into the troubled heart of the planet. He desperately tried to telescope the arm in and out, but while the arm moved, and the catch on its end worked, the bent arm would no longer reach far enough to latch the cable.
“We have had container contact, the arm is bent. Unable to latch one side,” he heard a panicked voice say before he realized it was his own.
Their planed flight path after snagging the cable was to arch over the top of the cargo container, roll 180 locked together, and then boost the ship and the container into an orbit at the cloud tops for the transfer to William’s ship.
Keen should have had the cable secure long ago and now with the centrifugal force of the 180 maneuver it held the connected side tight and he couldn’t even get it free.
With only one side latched when they came out of the 180 the two machines would be out of alignment and the boost unable to put them in orbit. His ship and the cargo container would be locked in a downward spiral, trapped to spiral helplessly into the planet’s gravity well.
Knowing he was about to die images raced through his mind. If Neptune did have icebergs floating on a sea of liquid diamond the ship with him in it was headed to the bottom of that diamond sea as surely as the Titanic sank on earth. Some survived the Titanic, but none could on Neptune’s sea.
The voice on the intercom was so stable and composed it actually startled Keen, “I can see your problem on my screen. I’ll see if I can max the thrust on one side and twist the ship so the grapple arm will reach. Probably only got one shot at this so stay alert. If I can get enough twist you’ll have to latch it immediately.”
Keen didn’t think the maneuver was physically possible with the flight angle and the centrifugal forces on the ship, but he concentrated and Alvin did make the move. And Keen managed the latch.
Sweet relief wanted to rush through Keen’s body, and he would have really liked that, but there was only the sinking feeling as they continued their tumble to the mantel. He could hear the ship’s phased generator as it strained trying to produce all the gravitons it needed to kick against the planet’s gravity, but the cargo container was heaver then they had planed.
He’d asked before how heavy of a container did Alvin think the ship could lift and he had been told two hundred and sixty metric earth tons would be as heavy as the ship could carry. Alvin said don’t worry the container the estimates were less then that.
But that wasn’t taking it account his late latch and that changed the flight trajectory, plus who knew how heavy this cargo container really was. Maybe Neptune would have its Titanic after all.
But if Neptune was to have its Titanic it wouldn’t be today and it wouldn’t be the ship Keen was on. Because Alvin regained control and the ship came from its spiral and lifted to the cloud tops. Now the relief Keen wanted so badly came.
In a few minuets Williams’s ship was overhead with its cargo bays open. The grapple ends hadn’t been the problem, so when Keen let them unlatch the cargo container drifted smoothly and William caught the container with his ship.
Alvin radioed without any adrenaline in his voice, “Hey can you guys give us a mass weight on that container? It seemed awfully heavy.”
In a minute, after the other ship did the calculation, William radioed, “Two hundred and fifty eight metric earth tons. That was pretty close to the max.”
“I thought it felt heavy,” Alvin replied. “Ok, we’re out of here. Back down through the core to finish our flight plan.”
Amazed he was still alive, Keen looked at the swirling clouds of the planet he was about to enter again and said to Neptune, “One more time Neptune, one more time through your angry heart. Then I swear it, I will never see you again.”
The container had set for two weeks in the shop near the grit-crusher table. Andy had circled it a hindered times, but had stayed to the agreement and hadn’t broken the seal and looked it.
William, Keen and Andy held up the everyday plastic cups with good champagne in them and William said, “This grit container will do better then break us even, but the next one will be pure profit.”
He lifted his class higher and toasted, “To pure profit.”
“Here, here,” Keen said. Then he laughed, “The next container we toast with champagne in real glass.”
William excitedly rubbed his hands together looking around to find something to undo the seal. He picked up the pliers on the grit-crusher shelf next to the ball-peen hammer Andy used to smooth the welds when he re-gritted the cutters.
“Glad you guys waited and didn’t break the seal until we are all here for this,” William said as he undid the wire sealing the container and dropped the plies on the floor.
William looked in and even from the man’s back, Andy and Keen saw William’s muscles go weak. William turned around with the blood drained from his face and his jaw slack. He collapsed in a metal shop chair and took a drink from his plastic cup, not in celebration, but to brace himself.
“Diamonds? There’s got to be diamonds in there,” Andy said, his voice scared.
“Yeah, there’s diamonds in there.”
Keen and Andy both hurried to the container, but Andy got there first. He reached in and pulled out a gleaming rock. It wasn’t round like a grapefruit, it was crystal shaped, but it was the size of large grapefruit.
When Keen saw what Andy had in his hand he wanted to collapse into a chair, but William was already setting in the only one.
Keen slumped against the container and peered inside. It was completely filled with huge crystals most far bigger the one Andy had. Some were the size of watermelons.
He took a diamond from the top, it was larger then Andy’s and he starred at it in his hand and finally said, “We are so screwed.”
The diamond’s shinny surface wasn’t clouded or pitted and it didn’t need to be polished to see the inside. Andy was already looking into his grapefruit sized diamond with his loop.
Andy breathed, “It’s flawless, the whole crystal. Perfect. No inclusions, nothing; it’s as clear as air.
Andy looked back into the container then he turned around and said, “What’s wrong with you guys? We’re rich! This isn’t just millions it’s got to be a billion.”
Finally getting his strength back William said, “At least a billion. It’s too much. Keene’s right we are screwed. Our diamond mining company is gone. This is it. We’re out of business.”
“What do you mean, out of business?” Andy asked a little angry. “We just keep this gem load hidden and do another container. Their getting industrial diamonds out of there, we just hit a gem load. The next time it will be grit diamonds.”
Andy looked at them perplexed and went on, “We do the same thing. Take some of the next load to fool customs. We were getting quite a few ten and better stones on the runs. We cut some of this load of big diamonds up small, ten and twenty carets, and sell them like we cut ‘em from the gem quality stones we get a few of in the grit loads we mine.”
“We can’t do another run,” Keen said, holding out the huge diamond he had taken from the container.
He went on, “Some rouge cowboys in the company weren’t trying to steal this load. This was done by the top officers and not only smuggled to save taxes. These huge stones will drive down the gem price. They couldn’t take the chance and let customs see these big diamonds. The news would leak out somehow.”
“Keen’s right. Think about it,” William said, “They were planning to catch this load and we got to it first. De Beers’ knows someone stole a two hundred and fifty eight metric ton load of gem diamonds. You think they won’t take precautions now? Send an escort ship, cameras or something? Even on the grit loads they dump?”
“Okay,” Andy said, “I see what you mean. So we can’t get another load. But look at what we have now. We do the same thing. We take the two or three hundred kilos we get a run and we add them to the next run. We tell customs we’re getting better on each run. They won’t know it’s the same diamonds. And we cut these big ones down for the money to stay in bussness.”
“We’re sure not going to tell anyone. And it’s good the company doesn’t want to say anything to let customs know of the huge diamonds,” Andy concluded, not seeing why his plan wouldn’t work.
William looked at his friend and said sadly, “They don’t have to say anything. They just have to do something.
William took his hand and slid it across his throat like a knife was cutting his neck. The look in Andy’s face told him Andy had gotten it.
He took the big diamond from Keen’s hands and showed Andy the tiny hole and punch mark where the piece had been sheared from a larger stone.
He said, “There are icebergs of diamond floating in Neptune’s liquid sea and De Beers is mining them. They will analyze the stones we sell and from the perfect crystal structure they will know they came from the icebergs.”
William sat the huge stone mined from Neptune’s iceberg on the heavy metal plate of the grit-crusher and reached for Andy’s pall-peen hammer. He smashed the large diamond into smaller pieces so the pieces would fit through the openings that led to the machine’s grit grinding wheels.
“Not a single caret can be a gemstone,” William said as he hammered on the pieces that were still to big to fit through the opening to the wheels.
Andy looked at the broken rock and then to the container and said, “All of it? You’re going to make all of these huge perfect diamonds grit?”
Keen took the huge diamond from Andy’s loose hands and handed it to William for the hammer.
Keen shoulders shrugged as if to say, “What else can we do?”
And his voice said, “Yes, all of it grit.”