The Nugget - Mark Clarkson
3D illustration by Mark Clarkson

The thing I notice immediately about Ceres Supra is how much better the station smells. The first time I was here, the whole place smelled like ass. The last time it smelled like an unhealthy blend of machine oil and overripe tuna. This time, it smells considerably better than the Terrabella, the ship I’ve just gotten off. Like an air-conditioned garden, in fact. Flowers and other fragrant plants seem to be sprouting everywhere, from long flower boxes along the wall, and small raised gardens ringed about by benches.

The station looks a lot better, too. No exposed ducts. No ill-fitting floor grates emitting suspicious vapors. Everything clean and white and pleasant, rather like the Singapore airport I left from. Somehow, the improvement disappoints me.

My hotel room turns out to be a slightly larger version of the cabin I’ve spent the last six weeks in. I step inside and start to close the door behind me, but it feels too much like a return to the grave. I chuck my luggage on the bed, turn around, and leave again.

The hotel brochure lists a number of new attractions: a circular swimming lake, a very short rainforest, even a miniature golf course. I’m not in the mood to swim or knock colored balls into a clown’s mouth, and I’ve had more than enough of hanging around my room reading and watching movies on the trip out from Earth. So I walk the wide corridors, aimlessly, with no destination in mind. After six weeks trapped onboard the Terrabella, it’s good to have somewhere new to go, even if that somewhere is nowhere in particular.

The corridors are clean, carpeted and full of nicely dressed people – even kids. That’s different too.

My feet lead me, with their usual sixth sense about such things, to a bar. This one’s called Charlie’s and an improbably rusty sign proclaims it the ‘oldest saloon in the asteroid belt.’ On the door, a smaller sign cryptically declares, ‘No outside smokes.’

Inside, I find the faux-authentic, old-timey décor of a tourist trap, along with the inevitable overpriced drinks with cute names like “Warp Drive” and “The Golden Asteroid.” Drinks too embarrassing to ask for by name. The bartender is a skeletal old gentleman in a tux-ish outfit that looks to be sewn together from shiny scraps of a Project Mercury space suit.

I sit at the bar, order a glass of their least expensive beer, and look around.

The first thing I notice are the smokers. I haven't seen it before, but smoking is popular again in some trendy circles; many of the patrons are sucking on little burning tubes of varying size and color, and happily blowing smoke in each other’s faces. The far wall is obscured by blue haze, despite the best the ventilation can do. I hate to think what it costs to keep the air up to station standards.

Behind the bar, alongside the bottles, the wall holds a colorful array of cigarettes and cigars. The posted prices are exorbitant, I presume to offset the extra air-cleaning costs. I wonder if some people don’t bring their own in with them, but where the hell else would you even find a cigar?

The next thing I notice is the man hunched at the end of the bar. He stands out from the upscale crowd like a sad gray clown at the circus. He looks a little … ratty. His clothes are clean but old and shapeless. His jacket is about 20 years out of style. His coarse black hair is badly cut. He’s nursing a beer with the same slow, systematic care I’ve seen from homeless guys trying to make a cup of fast food coffee last two hours. He’s smoking, too, but even his cigarette looks ratty.

A Character, I think. I’m always on the lookout for Characters. Sometimes they have an interesting story that I can turn into a short piece of human interest fluff. Sometimes, they’re an in to a bigger story, something I can write up for a newzine. Sometimes I steal them whole and stick them into my still-born novel, to see if they can jump-start the damned thing. So far none of them have, but hope springs eternal.

At the very least, they can usually entertain you for an hour or so, and I have a day to kill. I pick up my beer and go over to him.

“Mind if I join you?”

He looks up at me with dark, sad eyes, sunken into a thin, swarthy face. It’s hard to guess his age; he has an old-before-his-time patina. He holds my gaze, expressionless, for what seems like a full minute before he nods and gives what may be the ghost of a smile.

“Sure,” he says.

“Buy you a beer?”

“Sure again.”

I order two more beers and we introduce ourselves. His says name is Riazi and I tell him mine. We sip in silence for a while.

“You don’t look like you belong here,” he says after a while. I laugh and he smiles. “You’re thinking I don’t belong here either,” he says, “but you’re wrong.”

“I’m laying over,” I say. “I’m on my way out to Europa.”

He looks me over. “What the hell for?”

“I’m a writer,” I say. “I’m doing a story on the Lineae project for Solar Geographic. I freelance for various channels and zines. Technology, mostly.”

He frowns and shakes his head. “Europa’s a shithole. Worse than Ceres used to be. Wouldn’t get me out there.”

I shrug. “It’s my job. I was in Antarctica at the south pole telescope last year. I was up here back in ’18 when they were putting together the beta ring.”

He looks at me again, narrowing his eyes. “Yeah? You were here when they cracked it?”

I nod. “For about a month. I had to sleep in my suit for a couple of days when things went wrong. We had to bathe with little moist towelettes for two weeks after that.” I gesture toward the door and the station beyond. “Not like now.”

He chuckles. “Nope. It’s like the fucking Ritz, now. Kids running around and everything. Course, out around Europa, they’re probably trading sexual favors for fresh towelettes.” We both laugh.

He stubs out his cigarette, then retrieves a small packet of paper and a zip-locked plastic pouch of tobacco from his jacket pocket and expertly rolls a new one, like a cowboy in a damned black-and-white movie. I’ve definitely never seen that before.

“Aren’t you supposed to buy those from the bar?” I ask him.

He glances up at the bartender and they exchange a private look I can’t interpret. Then he says, “It’s okay. I’m sort of a regular. They don’t mind.”

He takes a small, measured sip of his beer. We’re quiet for a while, then he says, “You’re a writer, huh? You wanna hear a story?”

“What’s it about?” I ask.

He smiles at his beer. “Guilt. Revenge. Larceny. A mountain of solid gold.”

“Sounds better than The Princess Bride,” I say. “Is it a true story?”

“Oh yes. Yes, it’s true.”

 

***

 

Back then, (he says) men did the prospecting. Now, it’s nothing but damned robots, but back then it was men – and women – in ones and twos in little ships flitting around from asteroid to asteroid, marking, measuring, assaying. A few of them got very rich. A lot more of them got very dead. Most of them did it for a while and then went broke or just gave up and got real jobs.

Sam Johnson had been doing it as long as anyone. He flew a two-man ship with a man named Mehdi until … well, for some years.

Now, Johnson was a gambler. He would have been out here no matter what. To him, the asteroid belt was the lottery, and every rock he found was a ticket. Even if he’d hit it big, he’d have been out the next month, trying to hit it bigger.

Mehdi was different. He had a family – a wife and son – back on Earth. He was in a particular kind of trouble and needed a big wad of cash to get him and his family back out of it. One big score and he was done.

Except he never made the big score, of course. Space killed him first.

There was … an accident. That was common enough, especially ‘way back then. Hell, space wants to kill you. It’s trying every second of every day. All it takes is a tiny slip, or a bit of bad luck, and you’re dead.

Now, Johnson felt bad about Mehdi, and he felt bad for Mehdi’s family. He’d seen photos and video of Mehdi’s wife and boy, although he’d never met them. I think he wanted to send them some money, but he had little after the accident. He was doing menial work just to pay for his food and air allowance. Of course, there was the money from the sale of the wrecked ship; perhaps half of that should have gone to Mehdi’s family. But there wasn’t much of it, and he’d need everything he could save and scrounge for a new ship. Besides, for legal reasons arising from Mehdi’s troubles, it was Johnson’s name alone on the ship’s registry.

He wanted to at least send them a letter or a note, but he didn’t know what to say. Johnson had never been very good with people. In the end, he never said anything. Just kept working and saving. It took years but when he was able he started going out again, in a singleship this time.

In fact, that final trip with Mehdi was the last time he ever shipped out with another human being. He said he didn’t trust people anymore, but I wonder if he really didn’t trust himself. After all, he survived; Mehdi didn’t. Maybe it was guilt. Who knows?

He had only marginal luck with prospecting. He made enough to keep going, but just barely. He didn’t have any family or friends, unless you counted the prospectors and shuttle jocks he played poker with when he was in-station. For a gambler, he was a pretty lousy poker player; he was never very good at reading people.

But then he won a new ship’s computer at a game of Omaha, from a young computer tech named Charles Lang. Lang was new to the game and seemed pretty drunk and he put a lot of money in everyone’s pockets that night, including Johnson’s. But the big thing was the computer. Johnson’s ship computer was old, and getting a bit fussy in its dotage.

A good computer is essential. You can't fly out among the asteroids without one. The math is too much and too hard. You’d have a surprisingly hard time hitting the sun without a good computer, much less finding a little, spinning speck of extremely dark gray against an infinity of black. Not to mention the million little housekeeping tasks like keeping your comm lasers pointed the right way, and your air breathable, and your engine from exploding. New computers were expensive and this one was absolutely top of the line, orders of magnitude faster and more powerful than the one it replaced.

Lang even helped Johnson install it in the ship.

Maybe his luck was turning around.

And things did get better, at least a little bit. The new computer made it much easier to analyze sketchy data and pick out good prospects. He searched less and found more. He didn’t strike it rich, but he started turning an actual profit on most trips. He even started winning more at poker, a great deal of it from Lang, whose poker skills, if anything, grew worse over time. Sometimes, when Lang lost more than he could really afford, he paid Johnson in hardware, memory upgrades and whatnot, which he could get at cost from the company he worked for.

Surprisingly, Lang seemed to take quite a liking to Johnson. No one else sought out the prospector’s dour company, but Lang seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging around with him. Maybe it was that they were both very lonely men, though they wouldn’t have admitted that. Like Johnson, Lang had no family and few friends.

Johnson hadn’t enjoyed another human’s presence since Mehdi died, but he began to actually look forward to seeing the younger man on his returns. The word ‘friend’ flitted occasionally through his mind. And as they spent time together, puttering around Johnson’s ship, or playing poker, or drinking in Lang’s room – Ceres Supra had no actual bars back then – Johnson began to feel almost fatherly toward Lang. And he felt that Lang, who had evidently not known his own father well, had come to regard him as something of a father figure as well.

He didn’t find the idea altogether distasteful.

 

Most of the time, though, the only company he had was the computer. Lang said it had a woman’s personality, although Johnson always insisted that it had a woman’s voice. The distinction was important to him.

Now, some prospectors had … intimate relationships with their ship computers. You spend months at a time with no one else to talk to, I guess it’s natural, or at least to be expected. But some of them were downright daft about it. There was a prospector named Roy Gonzales, lost his computer in a holing back in ’09. He was a long way out and most men would have died out there, but Gonzales was the toughest bastard there ever has been. He survived and even managed to get the ship back to Ceres in a legendary feat of ship-handling and navigation. The ship was repairable, but the computer itself was dead as tombstones. When the techs told him, Gonzales thanked them politely and then put himself out an airlock without a suit.

But Johnson wasn’t like that. To him, a machine was a machine. A computer was just an especially complicated hammer. Most miners at least named their computers: Mother, or Jenny or Hal something. But Johnson called his, ‘Computer.’ “Computer, get me a fix on Ceres,” or “Computer run engine diagnostics.” If you started treating them like people, he used to say, they might start acting like people and God help us then.

“I wouldn’t want to trust my oxygen supply to any person I’ve ever met,” he said. Except Mehdi, perhaps. And Mehdi was dead.

Johnson had been going out with that new computer for about three years when he found the Nugget: a solid gold asteroid, big as a small mountain.

Well, of course it wasn’t solid gold, but it was largely gold and there was an awful lot of it. Johnson came back from his EVA with a lump of almost pure gold the size of his head. And the rest of it was pretty good stuff too. Iron and silicates. Lots of condensed volatiles. It was more than the find of a lifetime; it was the find of the century, and it was all his.

But now, for the first time in his career, Johnson felt paranoid. His asteroid was right out in the open where anyone could get at it. Maybe nobody was going to jump a registered claim to scurry off with a few tons of iron ore, but somebody might do it for a half-ton of pure gold. He wanted to hide the thing, but that was impossible. He decided his best defense, for now, was to pretend it hadn’t happened.

So Johnson had the computer file a generic claim with Ceres, registering the asteroid’s position, orbit and approximate size, and citing the iron and silicates, but neglecting to mention the gold. And then he moved on to the next likely rock as quickly as possible. He made a wide sweep, stopping at half a dozen more rocks and filing one more claim before heading back to the station. He told no one about the Nugget, not even Lang, who he avoided as much as possible while gathering the supplies he needed for a very thorough survey of his riches.

Once he knew exactly what he had, then he would fill Ceres in on the details. He didn’t want to give Accounting and Customs the opportunity to short him a few hundred tons of gold.

In less than a week, he was out again. This time, he went straight to his Nugget. Now, Johnson had never been an impatient man – his wasn’t the job for an impatient man –  but that trip out was the longest four and a half weeks of his life. Nearly killed him.

As soon as he got close enough to make out details in the telescope, he knew something was wrong, and it didn’t take long to confirm it. He was looking at a worthless chunk of rock. More or less the right size, but the wrong shape and completely devoid of gold, or even iron.

His Nugget was gone. Somebody had stolen it.

 

***

 

“Wait a minute,” I say. “Somebody stole it?”

“That’s what I said.”

“An umpty-million ton asteroid?”

“Yep.”

“And they replaced it with another asteroid for good measure? Why the hell would anybody do that?”

He took another carefully measured sip of beer. “You want to hear the story or not?”

I signaled the bartender for two more and shut up.

 

***

 

Of course, Johnson went absolutely batshit (he says.)

He had the computer call up the claim he’d filed, and he quadruple-checked his position against it using everything but a sun sextant. He was exactly where he was supposed to be, but the Nugget wasn’t.

It was one of those nightmare moments when something so bad happens that you can’t process it. You keep thinking if you close your eyes or shake your head, it’ll go away, the world will change back to the way it’s supposed to be. But it never does.

Johnson wanted desperately to smash something, but that’s likely to be fatal in a singleship in the middle of nowhere, so he just raged and screamed and cursed until he ran out of breath.

And, right then, the computer said to him, “Sam, I’d like to tell you a story.”

That would have surprised Johnson considerably, if he’d had any more surprise left in him. Instead he just said, “What is it?”

“Once there was a boy,” said the computer. “He was a very good boy and a very smart boy and he loved his Mommy and Daddy very much. But his Daddy was almost never around. He was in some kind of trouble – the Mommy would never say exactly what kind – and he spent most of his time far, far away, looking for a treasure that would end his trouble.

“The Daddy sent money home whenever he could, but it wasn’t very often and it was never enough. The Mommy worked hard all the time. She changed jobs often and even changed their names, sometimes. It all had something to do with the Daddy’s unnamed trouble.

“The Daddy could have come home. He could have faced his trouble, and worked hard at regular jobs, like the Mommy did. It would still have been hard, very hard, but at least they would have all been together.

“Instead, the Daddy spent all his time on treasure hunts with another man. The Daddy missed his family but whenever he wanted go home to them the other man always talked him into one more treasure hunt.”

“That’s not true,” Johnson said quietly.

“ ‘Just one more,’ the man would say. ‘Just one more.’ Every trip was going to be the last one and, finally, one was.

“And then the Daddy was dead and the other man took all of his money.”

“That’s not true,” Johnson whispered.

“He took all of the Daddy’s money and sold the Daddy’s ship and kept all of that money for himself as well. He never sent the boy or the Mommy a cent. He didn’t even send them a card. He just forgot them.”

Johnson shook his head, crying silently.

“But the boy didn’t forget the man,” said the computer. “He was a smart boy and a good boy and he got into a good school, despite the money and despite the Daddy’s troubles. The Mommy died, but the boy worked hard and studied. He learned all about computers and he got a good job with a good company. And he found the bad man and got himself transferred to an unwanted job on an unfinished space station, just to be near him.

“And he made friends with the bad man, and he learned his secrets, and he waited patiently for his chance to hurt the bad man, the way the bad man had hurt him. To take everything away from him.

“But he never dreamed how much he’d be able to take. In the end, it almost made up for everything that had been taken away from him. Not quite, but it would have to do.

“Did you like my story, Sam?”

Johnson noticed that the comm laser was on, dumping tons of data somewhere.

“Who are you talking to?” he asked.

“I’m talking to myself,” the computer said, “and when I’m done, I’ll talk to Charles. Is there anything you’d like to say to him? Are you going to beg?”

Johnson shook his head. “No.”

“Are you sure? Charles will be disappointed.”

Johnson said nothing. The computer turned out the lights and left.

 

The computer had stolen the Nugget, you see. Stolen it for Charles Lang, although that wasn’t the name he’d been born with. Lang was Mehdi’s son, of course.

Lang hadn’t really moved the Nugget; that’s impossible. He’d simply had the computer jigger the numbers. The Nugget was in Location X, but the computer filed the claim for Location Y. When Johnson returned to where he thought the Nugget was, where his computer told him it was, he found the wrong asteroid. You can’t tell where you are, out there, without a good computer.

The Nugget was still out at Location X, wherever that was, but Johnson would have been hard pressed to find it, even if he’d figured out what had been done to him, even if the computer hadn’t crippled his ship.

Lang, of course, knew right where it was, because the computer had told him, had sent him the coordinates even as it was filing the counterfeit claim with Ceres.

The computer was the trap he’d set years before, waiting for Johnson to make a find big enough to be worth stealing, although he never dreamed how big it would be. He’d custom-built her, he’d programmed her, he’d installed her, he’d helped Johnson ‘upgrade’ her several times. He’d taken every care to keep her in perfect working order. Couldn’t risk having her ‘repaired’ by another technician or, worse yet, replaced with a another computer altogether.

And then the trap snapped shut and Johnson was gone and Lang was one of the richest men in the solar system. It was the biggest gold heist in history.

 

***

 

“Jesus,” I say. “What about Johnson?”

“Johnson? He’d never have made it home without a working computer, even without the other mischief she played with the ship’s systems. Johnson is still out there somewhere. They never did find his ship.”

“That’s a helluva story. How come I’ve never heard it?”

He shrugs, and digs around in one of his jacket pockets. He produces a small wad of paper bills and smoothes two of them out on the bar. “For that last round,” he says.

I stare at the bills on the bar top. “Is that paper scrip?” I ask. “I didn’t think that was even legal anymore.”

“Legal here,” he says. “I don’t trust computers with my money.” He slides off his stool and walks toward the door, giving the bartender a little half-wave.

“Look me up next time you’re in and I’ll tell you about Gonzales,” he says, and walks out into the busy corridor.

When he’s gone, I hand my compcard to the bartender and tell him to add a large tip for himself. He thanks me and I ask him, “That was him, wasn’t it?”

He doesn’t even look at me. “Hmmm?”

“Sam Johnson, or whatever his real name is. He never died out there. That was him. How else could he have known that story? Known what happened at the end?”

Now he looks at me. “No. That’s not Johnson. Far from it. Johnson’s been dead for years and years.” He picks up our empty glasses and drops them into the washer.

“No, that’s Charlie Lang, née Riazi. Mehdi Riazi’s son.”

I turn to look toward the long-closed doors. “Him? Why does he dress like a well-mannered bum? I thought he was the richest man in the solar system.”

“He was, for about a week. Then she stole it from him.”

“She?”

“That computer he built for Johnson. Or its twin. Same thing, I suppose, after it downloaded its memory over the laser link from Johnson’s ship.”

“It stole the asteroid again?”

“Well, it stole all the money after he’d auctioned off the rights. He went to bed rich and woke up broke. Worse, actually, as he’d magically acquired about ten million worth of debt at the same time. I guess she did that bit just for fun. She was gone, of course. Couldn’t ask her.”

I watch him wipe the bar down while I mull that over. “What the hell does a computer do with billions of dollars?” I ask him.

He shrugs. “Beats me.”

“So he killed a man and stole billions of dollars and he still comes in here?”

He shrugs again. “It’s just a story. Nobody ever proved a thing. Besides, it’s his bar. Or was for a day and a half, before the bank repossessed it. But he built it, the first real bar in the belt. They never renamed it.”

Charlie’s, I remember. Charlie’s Bar. I shake my head and leave, walking back toward my hotel room through a crowd of shouting boys still wet from the circular swimming lake. Replaying Charlie’s story in my mind.

I think I’ll put him in my novel, see if he can jump-start the damned thing.

###

 

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