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Out of Nowhere by Patrick LeClerc.
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I was in the middle of infinite blackness. A lot of folks who've never left Earth, and even a few who should know better, think the Belt is full of gigantic boulders rushing around like mad. In fact, it's almost entirely empty space, with an asteroid every hundred thousand klicks or so to add a little interest. From where I floated, all I could see were hundreds of unblinking stars, their colors made brilliant by the lack of atmosphere. It was like looking at God's own jewelry box, lined with black velvet.

The sun was somewhere behind me, along with Ocelot and the umbilical cord that kept me attached to it. I kept staring into the void, trying to find something that was worth a million Euros or so.

"O'Malley, this is Ocelot." Thorvald's voice was distorted by my helmet's receiver into the whine of a low-level AI, but there was no mistaking his old-fashioned NASA-style formality of address. Who the hell else did he think I would hear out here? Buck Rogers?

"Go ahead, Franklin." He hated it when I called him Frank. He was a pretty decent guy, so I tried not to get on his nerves. He had a wife and kids back on Mars, and after a couple of months cooped up together in an ion-drive tin can he hadn't even made one pass at me. Not that I would have minded.

"Any sign yet? The Doppler says you should be near it."

"Nope." He'd been asking me the same question every five minutes for the last hour or so. Not only was I bored out of my mind, but I was running out of air and I had to empty my bladder. If I ever found this damn thing, I swore I would use some of the money to design an EVA suit which would allow a woman to urinate inside her suit as easily as a man could.

I was about to quit and ask Thorvald to crank me back inside when I saw it. At first it was just a tiny sparkle, slightly above my line of sight and to the left. It looked the way a single dust mote might look in moonlight. I turned my head to get a better look, and suddenly I could see it. A chunk of pure hyperfullerene, about the size of a baseball.

It was as black as space, but with a high enough albedo that sunlight glittered on its surface like diamonds. From what I could tell it was as lumpy as a potato. As it tumbled, new sparks of light were born as others died. Watching it was hypnotic.

"Got it," I said. "Give me a minute to seal it, then haul me in." I activated my suit's starboard control jet, giving me just a tiny little nudge in the right direction. A few seconds later it was in reach.

I aimed my right index finger at the hyperfullerene ball and pressed my left gauntlet into my right palm, hard. That activated the platinum-doped polymer spray. It came out of my finger like spidersilk, expanding as it hit the zero air pressure of space. I waved my finger around the ball like a madwoman, until the spray formed a shell around it. It looked for all the world like an ostrich egg.

"Ready any time you are, Franklin." I held the thing in my gauntlets as if it were as fragile as glass, which it wasn't, and as if it were worth its weight in gold, which was a vast understatement.

Scientists still hadn't figured out how carbon atoms could bond together to make hyperfullerene. Unlike plain old fullerenes, which were pretty stable, hyperfullerene reacted like a demon with just about any other form of matter. That's why you only found it in hard vacuum. Even the special polymer shell in which it rested would only last for a few days; just enough time for us to run it back to the Phobos research station and collect our reward.

And this one was big. The labs were paying heavy Euros for pieces of hyperfullerene smaller than a fingernail. Once we turned this one in, I'd never have to go running around the Belt again.

All this went through my head as I waited for Thorvald to respond. He was taking much too long to answer me.

"Come on, Franklin," I said. "Do you read me?"

"Loud and clear, Judy." He never called me Judy. "I'm thinking."

I held back a curse and forced myself to speak calmly. "This isn't the best time, Franklin. I'm low on air."

"I know." There was a long pause. "That thing's worth a lot of money. A man could live in luxury for the rest of his life." Something in the way he spoke so softly scared me. This wasn't the Franklin Thorvald I knew and liked. In the Belt, not being able to trust your partner is a death sentence.

"Listen. I don't care about the money. Let me back in and you can have it all. I swear to God." I tried to keep the panic out of my voice. "Besides, you'll have a hell of a time getting this ball into the ship by yourself."

Maybe that's what convinced him. I felt the tug of the umbilical cord pulling me back into the airlock. I sighed and let my bladder empty itself freely, not giving a damn how big a mess I was making in my suit.

The airlock cycled normally, although it seemed to take a year. As soon as the outer door was shut and the inner one creaked open, letting in a tiny whirlwind, I unsealed my helmet and took a deep breath. The recycled air aboard Ocelot, which had so often seemed stale and smelly, was like perfume. I stepped through the inner door and pulled off the rest of my suit. It was the first time I felt uncomfortable stripping down to my singlet in front of my partner.

Thorvald stood in front of me with a steel tube in his hand, holding it like a club. I recognized it as part of one of our bunks. Obviously he thought we weren't going to need both of them on the way home.

"Give me the ball," he said.

I clutched it close to my body. I imagined I could feel the hyperfullerene inside its shell, eager to burst out.

"Don't do this, Franklin. I'll sign away all rights to the profits, I swear." I backed away, but I knew I didn't have anywhere to hide.

"A contract won't stand up in court. They'll know it was coercion. I don't feel like spending years in a mining prison." He looked sad. "This way it'll be just another accident in the Belt. I'm sorry, Judy."

Thorvald stepped forward and lifted the tube. He was as used to moving around in zero gee as I was, but he was slow enough to give me time to throw the ball at him as hard as I could. The tube smashed its shell, releasing the hyperfullerene. In the bright interior light of Ocelot I could see a distorted image of his face reflected in it.

I was lucky that the impact of the tube hadn't sent the hyperfullerene flying back at me. Instead, it only wobbled a bit as it approached Thorvald. Its ebony surface burned with a hundred tiny fires as it reacted with the air inside Ocelot. In less than a second it hit Thorvald's arm. His screams mingled with the sound of trillions of ultra-reactive carbon atoms eating away his flesh. It sounded the way I imagined a herd of piranha might sound to their prey.

Thorvald leapt wildly away from the pain, banging his head into the wall. He bounced back. The hyperfullerene hit him in the face. I ran into the airlock and sealed the inner door. It took a long time for him to stop screaming, and even longer for me.

By the time I was ready to go back inside, I was sane enough to make sure that the hyperfullerene hadn't eaten a hole in Ocelot and that I would still be able to breathe. The indicators inside the airlock told me everything was normal, so I took a deep breath and opened the door.

There was no sign of the hyperfullerene. Whatever part of it hadn't died while it was consuming Thorvald's flesh had reacted with the air to form a fine white powder. What was left of Thorvald's body was covered with it. He floated inside Ocelot with tiny spheres of blood surrounding his nearly headless corpse.

Only years of zero gee training kept me from vomiting as I made my way past Thorvald's body into his bunkroom. I activated a distress signal and waited. It only took a few hours for another pair of Belters to find me. Maybe they had been tracking the Doppler echo of the hyperfullerene, too.

I still work the Belt. I found a new partner. It took me a long time to learn to trust her. We haven't made any big finds yet, but I send what I can to Thorvald's widow and children. The official story is that his death was accidental, and I think I owe them something for that.

The scientists still don't know why hyperfullerene exists at all, but I've got some guesses of my own. I've seen it in action. Maybe the astronomers are wrong, and the Belt isn't just a bunch of scrap left over from the birth of the Solar System. Maybe it used to be a planet. A planet with people on it. Not people like you and me; not in looks, anyway. But maybe they thought like us. Maybe some of them got greedy, and made war with some others. Maybe they invented a weapon that could be made from something as simple as carbon atoms. A weapon that could rip their planet apart, leaving only a few chunks of rock and some tiny pieces of the weapon itself.

I hope I'm wrong. Maybe the scientists will never figure out how to manufacture hyperfullerene. But I still dream about Thorvald's ghost, and I wonder if he'll be the first and last human being to be killed by that beautiful, horrible treasure.


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2011-08-17 04:27:43
I love it. Real good SF at last!

2011-06-01 06:25:36
Not bad. I'd like to know more about the character, tho.




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