The Rock Thrower

Summary: An asteroid mining attempt ends badly.

A shimmering lattice of solar collectors and metallic shafts had been deployed along the outer skin of the asteroid. Only visible to humankind through telescopes and remote sensors, the automated asteroid mine was a sight of wasted beauty. Vapors rose from the ground as though exhaust from a great chthonic engine. The stark, pockmarked surface was broken by a compressed planes of flattened dirt, ground down by automated rovers and bulldozers a fraction of their size on earth. The absence of gravity allowed the dimensions of machinery to shift dramatically.

A central shaft was dug through the outer skin of the asteroid, marked above by the antennas and telemetry masts that mushroomed from the center of the crater. Within the control center, approach vectors for Earth were downloaded onto a central computer. A distant mission control, sitting comfortably in an office building several worlds away, had given the automated system instructions to move.

Mission control had not grown complacent since the first time. Parking the mined asteroid in one of Earth's Lagrange points would greatly simplify the mineral extraction process, but the gravitational waltz was a delicate matter. As even a single miscalculation could end in tragedy, the utmost care had been taken to minimize the chances of human error. Even though humanity had learned across thousands of years that throwing rocks could end in tragedy. Bigger rocks could cause bigger tragedies.

Electromagnetic drives along the body of the asteroid stirred to life like sleeping furies. Imparting a portion of their thrust as angular momentum, the asteroid rotated like a cog in a cosmic clock. Without need for reaction mass, the entire operation was cheaper than first envisioned. The asteroid accelerated for a trajectory that would bring it close to its destination.

It was during a month in space that mission control encountered complications. The manual override for a cluster of electromagnetic drives was seized by a sophisticated cyberweapon. The program demanded an obscene ransom of a digital currency that had no longer been used, an obscure altcoin from the early era of stateless cash. A panicked intelligence investigation determined that the guerrilla group that had programmed the malware had disbanded a decade ago, but their software still operated of its own accord. Never in their wildest nightmares did they image the autonomous weapons of the past would hold the future hostage.

While the police and intelligence services tried to track the original programmers, mission control returned to problem solving. An engineer came up with a solution that satisfied the astrodynamics department. The electromagnetic drives along the body of the asteroid were controlled in clusters, one of which had been compromised by the malware. The malware prevented changes in velocity from being issued to the infected cluster, so the engineers instead adjusted the thrust vectors of the remaining clusters.

Mission control hesitated at first, due to the potential for the rock to fall into a collision course with Earth. As the rock approached with each passing instant, they put the plan into effect with clenched fists and bitten nails. The remaining engines increased their own thrust to compensate for the rogue cluster's predictable thrust. The planned trajectory had been restored, prompting premature celebration.

The failure of an overloaded engine cluster sent the claimed asteroid tumbling away as it approached near Luna. The other engine clusters were hastily readjusted, but the damage had been done. The asteroid was snagged by lunar gravity and drawn towards the moon with an ever-increasing velocity. The asteroid impacted the lunar surface like a celestial sledgehammer, visible from the Earth's surface.

The debris field kicked up by the collision was mercifully far smaller than the worst case scenario. The Moon's gravity kept the largest bits of debris from hitting Earth, although some artificial satellites were damaged. When the lunar dust had finally settled, mission control realized their mission had been successful, in an ironic way. The asteroid and its mineral treasures were now closer to Earth, although not in their preferred location. Big rocks could bring big tragedies, but also big paydays.

And that was why humanity returned to the moon.