“Just because the Zig can make just about anything doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that it’s cheap. A lot of times it’s cheaper to find base materials and haul them in.” Algernon explained as he scratched the tip of his nose gently. His eyes were entirely focused on the projected readouts in front of him.
“The Oort Clouds and beyond are good places to find certain raw materials, also. Even if you can synthesize and transmute elements it helps to have those elements in a purer form. A lot of times the lighter elements end up on the outskirts of older systems, especially ones with gentle gravity wells like this one. Think of a centrifuge, only nothing like one.” Maria added.
Ahrrotl had agreed to accompany her two human friends and their AIs on a mining expedition on the very edge of the system. She had become bored with Lotus Station, and both Maria and Algernon had made the prospect of prospecting sound exciting. She had no complaints about the accommodations – the ship was small and cozy, the air filled with the pheromones of other healthy mammals, and the company was pleasant enough during break or leisure time. The human’s prudish mores still aggravated her – Maria had gotten offended when she tried to sit on Algernon’s lap – but it was better than the alternating chaos and deathly humdrum of station life.
It was quiet, soothing, and predictable. This small, warm, flying den had set a trajectory for the outer reaches of the system, not terribly far from Lotus Station itself but actually in the system’s Oort cloud, a region of dust and frozen asteroids that orbited at the far edge of Laeli’s gravitational tug. She listened to her human companions jabber excitedly about chemical composition and rare elements and compounds as she groomed herself or read, and occasionally entertained them with a story or song. She hadn’t been able to get them to dance yet, but that was unsurprising. Humans weren’t as stiff as the Zig that they resembled, but they weren’t the most limber or expressive of creatures.
Ahrrotl yawned and combed her tawny belly fur as she flipped over on her beanbag cushion. She scrolled ahead in the story that she was reading on her handheld projector. It was a human romance involving an unlikely pairing of lovers in a savage pre-solar civilization, but it was poorly paced and at this point she just wanted to read through the mating scenes and be done with it.
A high-pitched, quiet voice broke the silence, “It looks like you were right, Mr. Algernon! What you had me look at earlier – it is molybdenum. A whole bunch of it, spinning ever-so-quickly around the star, just about as fast as we are. It’s not too far away. Can we have a look-see? Please? Pretty please?”
Algernon smiled and brushed his thick black hair out of his face, revealing cobalt eyes. “Thanks, Tommy. Maria?”
Maria didn’t even look up from her bank of projected readings. “Hmmm? I don’t know. How far away is it?”
A figure appeared floating above her projections. It was small, but definitely human-shaped, wearing a black robe and a white-and-black headdress that Ahrrotl seemed to recall being indicative of some human religion. The figure’s face was wrinkled with age and stern, its watery blue eyes huge and slightly bloodshot. “Two light minutes and not a second more, young lady. As much as I think that young Tommy would do well to watch his figures more closely I would like to compliment him on his analysis, he’s done a fine job.”
“Thank you, Mother Superior.” Tommy’s quiet voice seemed to come out of the surrounding air.
Ahrrotl turned on her cushion and looked at Algernon upside down. “Why don’t we ever see Tommy?”
Algernon chuckled a little and glanced over at Mother Superior and back to Ahrrotl. “He’s shy, Throttle. He’s just a youngin’.” Maria actually looked up at him long enough to give a look that Ahrrotl interpreted as suspicion. She didn’t like his nickname for Ahrrotl any more than Ahrrotl did, but for far different reasons. Humans are so possessive of one another. Ahrrotl mused. It’s a wonder that they had abandoned slavery by the time the Mauraug found them.
Mother Superior interrupted the awkward moment. “Shall Tommy and I plot a course?”
Maria’s gaze still had not left Algernon’s, and Ahrrotl could tell that there was quite a bit of nonverbal communication occurring between the two, but was new enough to humans that she couldn’t interpret most of it. Part of the reason she had agreed to go along on this trip was to gain a grasp of human expression, and she was now wishing she had chosen another venue for that exploration.
“I don’t know, Mother. What do you think, Gerry?” Maria spoke slowly and pointedly.
“Well, it’s not like it’s very far from us…”
“Aren’t you forgetting something? Something important?”
Algernon frowned in puzzlement. Maria screwed up her mouth in frustration, and spoke again in the same slow and deliberate tone. “Gerry, we need to go back to the station soon. We didn’t calculate the amount of food that we’d require accurately for two people and a Hrotata. We will need to restock.”
Algernon’s frown deepened. “But … it’ll take us less than a day to get there, and two days to get back to Lotus. We should still have enough supplies for a month. We’ll be fine.”
Maria sighed stiffly, her shoulders locked, and looked back down to her projections. “Fine. Whatever. Go ahead, Mother. Fastest route out and back.” The projection of Mother Superior nodded curtly and vanished.
Al smiled widely. “Great! We’ll just grab a couple of samples and tag it and go back for supplies.” He looked at Ahrrotl. “Don’t get too relaxed, Throttle, we’re just getting started! Just wait till we get there, we can all go outside into the Big Empty together!”
Lovely. I’d better make sure that I’m not the last one back or Maria will cycle the lock on me. I can just imagine it, “Sorry, Ahrottl, we only have enough air for two people. You know, people, which does not include Hrotata. We’ll send someone else in a couple of days to pick up your corpse!” She stilled with anxiety, but tried to sound enthusiastic. “Wow! The space between the stars! I’ve never even been in an Oort Cloud, much less outside of it.”