It was near sunrise on the western hemisphere of a small, rocky planet in the Deep Field region later identified as the Groth Strip. The mining vessel Solis Ortis skimmed just above lower orbit, welcoming a low mass red giant star as it bloated across the entire horizon. It was an old sun, its outer layers jettisoned into space in an ultraviolet halo. The synthesized material burbled up from the nuclear core was once an incredibly valuable bounty of gold, silver, precious gems, and raw elemental material. These days, the prize was on the planet below, hidden somewhere deep under the red dust.
The Solis Ortis began its rapid decent to the planet surface. At the helm, the planet-cracking veteran Captain Bol steered the ship down into the center of a large impact crater, a limited even surface on a geologically active planet.
“Ground radar suggests solid footing, Captain,” reported flight operator Hyvan. “Set her down here. We are within 100 paces to the target.” The massive ship shuddered and hissed as it set down in unusually high gravity. The ships’ high density carbon windshield struggled to filter out the red saturation, but the outline of the rocky surface was clear. The landscape was flooded with a blood-red brilliance, and shadows appeared as limitless as an event horizon. A dead planet, pretty spooky, thought the captain.
“Drill team, be advised. Canis-1 has a fast-spinning active liquid metal core. Gravity is going to be heavy,” Captain Bol announced over the comm. The sun worried him. The unstable red giant broadcasted radioactive red light, and even in upgraded planetwalk gear, exposure had to be limited.
There were plenty of benign planets within the Solis Ortis mining quadrant. Why send them all the way out here? Bol briefed the planet diagnostic again; the core and mantle were saturated with rare ore elements. Still, the risk struck as zero sum gain. The Ortis could crack three docile planets and process nearly equal amounts of ore in the time it would take to crack Canis-1. It didn’t make sense. Bol hoped that the mission would go smoothly and quickly.
Down in the hold, the drill team was suiting up in ultrablack.
“Make sure those suits are pressurized to the max, this planet is fucked!” called out the lead drill engineer, Pace. He walked purposefully to inspect the six-person crew wiggling into the tight planetwalk gear. Pace had to get everyone moved out onto the surface as soon as possible. Though the sun was massive, it swung the planet in rapid orbit, limiting the day to a few short hours. Darkness increased the risk exponentially.
“The red sun has been blasting the entire surface with radiation for about,” he looked down at the display in his wrist, “twenty-five million years, so our target is below the crust, about 9 miles down.” Pace, nearing his thousandth mining run, took the same walk around The Drill. It was a colossal tank of a machine, reinforced with hyperdiamond matter extracted from a neutron star, and 12-ms thick sapphire glass. A massive boring drill at the front of the craft created an unstoppable mechanized force in the interstellar business of planet cracking.
Pace monitored all systems from his wrist, but trusted the operation of The Drill to his second-in-command, Luned.
Luned kept pulling down the crotch of her uncomfortably tight ultrablack suit. The drill operation took at least four hours to complete, so her comfort was important. “Pace, planetary acceleration is 150Gs. It’s spinning way too fast, and we’ll be maxing out the suits to compensate. Who authorized this hellhole for mining,” she grumbled over the intercom.
“If you’re complaining about the gear riding up your butt, I got the message. We’ll get you new gear once we’re back home,” Pace lied. “Keep the suit pressurized or your internal organs will come out of your pores.”
“Copy,” Luned affirmed, her fingers gliding across the hologram control panel. Final check sirens blared outside. Pneumatic gauges jumped, nuclear containment dials flashed, and atmospheric sensors displayed the chemical compounds in the toxic atmosphere outside; ammonium hydrosulfide, ethane, phosphine, and a little helium for fun. Winds whipped the planet at 80m/s, but at least they broke up the clouds that coalesce into acid rain. Through her windscreen, Pace signaled to turn the engines on by cranking his arm at waist level.
Luned hit the ignition and The Drill rumbled to life by diverting power from the heavy neutrino core. Silva and Eo, the support team, activated the airlock and drained atmosphere and pressure from the hangar. The bay doors opened and the gravity locks released, causing the team to simultaneously slump and struggle to remain on their feet.
“Let’s get this over quickly. I can barely hold my head up!” Pace signaled the team to rally and pointed to the target zone. He walked down the ramp and stepped foot onto Canis-1’s soft regolith. Red and black duotone dominated the landscape of thin, eroded silicate pillars before him, and massive jagged mountain peaks in the far distance. A warning flashed on Pace’s heads-up display. They were on the right planet.
“Pace, report,” Captain Bol prompted over the comm.
“Sir, the planet is hostile, but we can crack it before the sun comes back around. We’re close to the target, extraction will be quick.”
“Affirmative. We will track your progress and your suits from the ship. Crew will retreat to the airlock once The Drill cracks the mantle.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir, we—”
“Those are the orders, Pace. Do not fuck around on this planet.”
“Yes, sir,” he confirmed without further discussion. The lead engineer had accounted for all possible situations and moved up his internal timetable. “Luned, get The Drill to the target area and hit it with a full-yield ultrasound blast.”
Luned eased the mega-machine down the hangar ramp and effortlessly rolled to the impact crater. The young woman queued up the ultrasound beacon. “Sonic blast initiated, everyone brace!”
Pace started the countdown, “In three, two, one. Fire!”
The ultrasonic blast emitted from the base of The Drill shook the entire planet. Columns of dust rose from the ground and cloaked Luned’s cab in near darkness. On her dashboard, a pingback revealed the entire internal structure and composition of Canis-1. The data called out thousands of internal fractures in furiously blinking red dots along an on-screen diagram. It was too unstable. If Luned lowered the drill, the entire crust would break apart and ascend into space. The dust refused to settle even in the heavy gravity. Canis-1’s winds kept the particles afloat, and the low intensity red light from the sun barely penetrated the dust. It was hopelessly dark. Metal and radioactive particles in the dust acted like chaff and interfered with The Drill’s sensors.
“Captain, I’m not able to lock onto the target area. The dust is clouding the sensors, and I can barely see anything,” she radioed in. No response on the other line. “Captain?” Luned switched channels, and tried again.
“Pace, I can’t reach the Captain. What’s going on?” Her personnel radar only showed lead engineer Pace as a yellow dot. “Where’s Eo and Silva? I lost them on radar.”
“Nothing to worry about, it’s just dust. It’s kicking up more radiation than accounted for. The crew is back in the airlock. Captain said to hit the ultrasound again,” Pace ordered as he stood over the broken body of Eo. Black blood boiled off into the atmosphere as it seeped out of the cracks the young crewman’s helmet. Silva laid only a few paces away, slowly crushed to death when Pace remotely depressurized her spacesuit.
“Nothing to worry about?” Luned argued, “Multiple fissures are exploding across the mantle. If we hit it again, the entire planet will shake apart.” Luned was well-protected inside The Drill. Short of being swallowed by an event horizon, almost nothing could breach the reinforced exterior. Still, she wasn’t keen on the idea of breaking the planet apart and being lifted off into a red giant, either. The accelerated spin of the planet was the only thing that keeping them grounded.
“I said blast it again, we’re wasting time!” Pace hollered into the comms. He raced to the Ortis’ airlock and hangar. With his modified suit, Pace quickly gained access to the ship’s operating system through the diagnostic terminal. With the next blast, he would cut the power to the entire aft of the ship.
Loud static broke out over the comm, “Sir, I can’t do that, I'm locked out of the ultrasound,” Luned replied. "It won't fire without an override."
“It’s just radioactive interference. Everything is fine,” whispered to himself. "Initiate override."
The HUD green-lit another blast in the queue. Luned braced herself inside the machine. "Pace, what are you doing! Stop!" The ultrasound interface started ticking up, green lights stacking as the device built power.
"You're going to be just fine." The crewman triggered the final ultrasonic blow.