The blue beam shattered the pitch black of space, lighting pristine and untouched rock that had not been seen by mortal eyes in eons. Johanson winced one brown eye closed as the bright beam intersected with a piece of matter, burning it away and sending the remainder of the rock tumbling away. “Rodriguez, could you pay attention? Tractor that piece back into the main beam. We need to get this operation moving faster.”
Rodriguez, seated to his rear and above him in one of the many turret tractor beams, startled at the call, glancing down towards Johanson. “Sorry, boss. Must have been drifting off.”
The tractor beam came to life, grabbing the rock and pulling it back in line with the mining laser. The laser went to work immediately, boiling away the material as Rodriguez expertly manipulated it with the tractor beam, before pulling the remaining matter away from the beam. Johanson signaled one of the waiting drones, and it flitted through the blackness of space, grabbing the mass of rock and ore and shuttling it back to the waiting processor.
An indicator light began to blink next to Johanson, and simultaneously a voice called him over the comms. “Boss, drone three’s scans are in. There’s a large concentration of metals deeper in the belt. It’d take us an hour to get out to it, but the haul looks rich enough to make the navigation worthwhile.”
“Thanks for the update, Collins. What are we looking at?”
“Rare metals from the look. Lots of anomalous stuff, too. We’d need samples to figure out what it all is, but we’re looking at enough material to fill us up twice over. Maybe even three times over!”
Rodriguez whistled a low, impressed tone. “Three times over with rare metals? That’d pay off the ship and then some.”
Johanson nodded, leaning back in his seat as he contemplated the situation. The Emma, a RSI Orion mining platform, currently sat at the edge of a massive debris field—the remnants of a planet shattered by some unknown cataclysm. The debris field sat at the edge of a black hole’s gravitational pull, creating an eerie backdrop to their work area. This system was their own little secret; a jump point they had discovered had led them to this little slice of the galaxy, and the black hole threw off conventional scans, so they could work with relative impunity.
“All right then. Let’s maneuver through the field. Green, Collins, shut down your stations and get on the tractor beams. We’ll need to clear a path for dear ‘ol Emma through the mess,” Johanson said.
“On it. Let’s get her moving, boys!” Rodriguez said, shifting excitedly in his seat as he began moving aside massive swaths of debris.
The Emma’s engines spooled up slowly as the ore processing beam shut off, and with a slow and stately glide, the ship moved into the field, slipping through holes in the mass of rock made by the crew. The drones buzzed around the ship, assisting with maneuvering asteroids out of the way. Meanwhile, far ahead, drone 3’s signal guided them towards their unseen destination.
As they slipped around a particularly large bit of debris, the potential mining site came into view. Johanson cut the engines immediately, squinting into the darkness as he focused the forward-facing lights on the site. The object in question was a twisted mass of black, smooth rock that looked to be fused with metallic ores. The surface was glassy in appearance, reflecting back the light slightly. Silvery lines broke up the black glass, drawing the eyes towards a central core surrounded by spires of black. The whole of the mass was like looking at a droplet of liquid metal, frozen in time, half-melted and then halted before it could fully form, leaving tendrils of material leaking from the whole.
“I never seen anything like it,” Rodriguez said softly, voice reaching a reverent tone that Johanson had never expected to hear from the normally brash man.
“I don’t think anyone has seen anything like it, Rodriguez,” said Johanson.
The mass twisted before them as a smaller bit of debris impacted it and bounced away, crumbling. Johanson’s eyes widened as he noticed the glassy black surface was unblemished by the strike. “That’s incredible. We need to get samples and get them analysed immediately. I don’t even know if our refinery can handle… whatever that thing is made out of.”
“I’ll send out drone one and two. Get some samples of the surface with one, and a deeper core sample with the other. We’ll get the sampled processed within the hour, hopefully, and we’ll be able to get mining after that,” Green’s voice replied, two drones already launching away from the Emma and heading for the strange mass.
“In the meantime, let’s process some of our haul and make some room for all the rough material we’ll be bringing in. Collin, get the refinery running again. Only keep stuff that’s really worthwhile, though. We need all the room we can get.”
“Aye, captain. On it,” Collin replied over the comms.
The ship rumbled as the materials processor spooled up and began working, the whole ship vibrating as Collin worked through the ore, burning away all but the most valuable and pure ores in the crucible. From the bridge, Johanson watched Green work, the drones buzzing around the surface of the monolithic rock as they collected samples and analyzed the structure. Johanson felt his gaze drift several times, his focus moving from the drones to the rock. The structures of twisting tendrils of rock shifted as the rock spun in a slow rotation, drawing his eyes inward towards the central portion of the mass. He blinked, noticing something for the first time. A blue light, faintly emanating from the middle of the mass of spiraling arms of the structure. “Green, check the readings from the probe. I’m seeing a light source out there.”
Green glanced out of the cockpit window, frowning. “I don’t see anything.”
Johanson looked back at Green. “What?”
“It must have been one of the drones’ engines,” Green said.
Johanson focused out of the window again, but the spinning rock had shifted slightly, and the light was gone. He squinted, peering out to spot the drones. Their engines did emit a soft blue light as they activated, and the glassy surface picked it up, reflecting the glow. Johanson sighed. “Right. Sorry, it’s just so strange.”
“It is pretty strange, all right. I’ve never seen naturally forming structures like that before. It’s like frozen liquid… like something heated up a massive amount of sand and metals and fused it all together before spitting it out.”
“A giant friggin’ spitball in the middle of nowhere. Awesome,” Rodrigues griped, leaning back in his chair.
“I’m almost hesitant to cut into it. Do we have any samples, yet?” asked Johanson, ignoring Rodriguez.
“Yeah, we’re analysing them right now. We should have some answers to what this thing is made out of in a few moments,” Green said.
“Well, while you finish that up, get the core sample going. The surface is plenty shiny, but I’m more interested it what’s inside,” Johanson said, watching the drones as the flitted around the surface.
“Right. Getting drone two in position to take a core sample… and… done, “ Green said, and Johnson watched as one of the drones landed on the rock and settled into place.
Johnson peered over Green’s shoulder as he worked, watching as the man analysed the samples that had been brought back to the ship. Green frowned as the analysis completed. “This is… impossible.”
Johnson’s eyes poured over the screen as he tried to interpret what the computer was showing Green, but he simply wasn’t as familiar with the analyzer. “What?”
“It’s… proteins. Complex proteins, assembled into monomers and filaments…” Green’s face went pale, and he inhaled sharply. “It’s keratin.”
Rodriguez glanced over from his seat. “So, what, it’s valuable?”
Johnson stared at Green for a moment. “Keratin is…?”
“Skin. It’s fucking skin, or fingernails, or hair, or whatever the fuck it wants to be, because it’s keratin,” Green shouted.
Johnson blinked, turning to look out the window at the massive rock. “But that’s a rock.”
“No, it just looks like a rock! I’ve got to stop the core sample, before it—” The screen in front of Green blinked a warning. Seismic activity detected, core sample compromised.
Johnson gaped in shock as the tendrils of the rock began to squirm, shivering and thrashing about. The drones were swatted away, shattering on impact with the rock. The probe sampling the core exploded, the fine drill sliding free of the surface and bringing with it an oily, viscous liquid that boiled away as it hit the vacuum. In the middle of the impossible structure, a glossy, black orb appeared, opening on nictitating membranes to focus on the Emma.