Pendulum Ch. 29: Drone Dance

The large breach in the hull where the entrance of the hangar had been had made things easier and more complicated at the same time. Achim’s engineering teams had to wear suits here, and his fully automatised army of robots, while precise and efficient at their jobs, couldn’t do the needed reprogramming and configuration work, and moving the mining drones inside the pressurised compartments was impossible. But the work was done. Getting the swarm started, though, was child’s play. The enormous gates had been smashed to pieces and flown off into space, where they dispersed in the vastness of the Gliese system.
The protocol ran without a hitch. One, two, then six groups loosened their magnetic clamps, started their small engines and slid out into space. Thousands of mining drones moved in unison like a school of fish, slowly through the opening, then speeding up, only to circle the huge rock the Tuatha had kissed when it entered this corner of the universe; a one-in-a-billion first meeting, memorable not only for its odds. Even in misfortune, they had been lucky to not ram it head-on.
“Status green. All vehicles activated.”
The AI’s voice sent the message directly through his network interface chip into his brain, bypassing the ear canal and stimulating the auditory cortex directly. Achim smiled grimly. Something went according to plan, at long last.
The drones were barely bigger than human heads individually and would vanish from sight immediately once they reached their rally point and received their last orders. In orbit around the asteroid, they danced through the vacuum, and feint reflections of the three suns caused them to glitter like dust in the wind.
The first group had assembled outside, but more were yet to come. Even though their movement seemed slow, in reality, their speed was too fast for human controllers to manage in what seemed like utter chaos, but was in reality well-choreographed.
“Fifty percent launched,” the AI said.
The procession of metal and plastic moved increasingly faster, now that the other half had made room for them and the danger of collision was all but gone. Each of the drones was specialised in extracting minerals from their designated rocks, an exercise he had left to the ship’s computer. No need to check each of them manually. Even a low metal content asteroid was still valuable. Silicates were in demand, and even oxygen could be reused, while nickel, iridium, palladium, platinum, gold, magnesium and other precious metals would prove invaluable. But collecting them was not enough.
Achim called up his planner. The last drone would leave the Tuatha in less than two minutes, followed by the reorientation phase. None of them would still be visible in five minutes. Two more operations lay still ahead, though. While one division of mining drones hollowed out the rock, logistics drones would travel between the mining sites and their new home. Turning their cosmic tripwire into a factory would take weeks, and while a constant stream of raw materials wouldn’t make it look like it, distances were enormous. The drones furthest out would need weeks until they reached their destinations, and the transporters weren’t any faster, but that hardly mattered.
All components for the new auto-factory were prepared and in place, but couldn’t leave the ship for a while yet. Who would have thought that space travel would consist more of waiting than adventure?
Achim snorted. Such romantic notions were not like him at all, but the show before his eyes was admittedly impressive.
“Seventy-five percent launched.”
The hall below him emptied even faster now. Small service vehicles zipped around and cleaned up the launch pads meant for transport boats, not tiny drones. Of their fleet capable of carrying personnel, only one vessel had survived. It was in dire need of repair, and not yet returned from its trip to Gliese 667Cc. Another point on his already cramped to-do list.
“Looks impressive, doesn’t it?” Branan said.
Achim turned around and nodded a greeting. He had been caught in the moment and not seen the lurikeen coming. This, too, was untypical for him. Maybe he needed more sleep, but the events since their arrival had kept him on his feet for… almost seventy hours now.
“It does. Let’s hope the failure rate is small enough for them to catch up with self-repairs. I know they’re supposed to be tested and work just fine, but so was the sensor phalanx.”
“Launch complete.”
The last group of drones sailed out into the abyss and took over their positions around the asteroid. The complete process had taken only a few minutes, and the next step in the sequence would already be autonomous, initiated by their specialised AIs. There was no reason to stand here and watch them split into groups and bolt off toward their destinations, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the cloud of machines. Their dance had an almost hypnotic impact on him. He shook his head and cleared his mind.
“Why are you not in the engineering room?”
Branan grinned. “I found something I thought you’d want to see immediately.”
The lurikeen’s eyes grew distant for a moment, and a notification icon flashed in the corner of Achim’s field of vision. The two men exchanged a glance, and the grin on Branan’s face had grown even wider. He opened the message.
“What am I looking at?”
“The deleted personnel file. The board computer of the Tuatha De Danann performs more than one backup, and this is one of them, archived and saved in a spot they didn’t check.”
The gravity of this discovery dawned on him way too slowly. He really needed some sleep, and soon, before he messed up anything important and got the entire crew in trouble, but now he had another reason to push bedtime back some more.
“Good job, Warrant Officer Mccoys,” he said.
The lurikeen showed him a mock salute, and the grin on his face stretched his beard thin enough to let the skin beneath shimmer through.
“Should I contact the captain?”
“Not yet.”
“That’s what I thought.”
Branan’s laughter was infectious.

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