Vice Captain Mohini Sharma was less focussed on the technological marvel unfolding in front of her eyes, and more concerned for her husband. She watched the control room camera feed of him and his colleagues operating Earth Borer 248 - the large mining platform, which travelled on 8 giant robotic legs. It was fondly known as just 248.
The year was 4030. Mohini was standing at ease, looking out of the windows of a planetary drop ship. The giant mining robot was traversing the surface of the planet the Indian National Space Organisation or INSO had named Grah 91 Taxxon. Earlier, her spacecraft, which served as expedition headquarters, had detached from its larger mother ship in orbit - the INSO's most advanced mining craft, the Dwaraka.
While there seemed to be no life on this barren planet, there was something calming about its black glassy surface. It shimmered like a river. It reminded Mohini of all the times she and her husband had made love under the starry night sky on earth.
Vice Captain Mohini and her husband were part of a ten member team comprising flight officers, mining experts, scientists and medical specialists. The Dwaraka's mission was to map the distant corners of our galaxy and survey for minerals. Depending on the value of the minerals discovered, it was also in their remit to extract the minerals. They were also directed to bring back any valuable artefacts belonging to alien civilisations or evidence of extraterrestrial life.
The expedition was in its 5th year. While they had harvested items for the museums on earth, they had failed to procure anything of significance for the INSO's commercial wing. Specifically, minerals the nationalised mining companies owned by the Indian Government could sell. Minerals that could fuel the undying need for energy on earth.
When Grah 91 Taxxon first appeared on their scans they had dismissed it as another wasteful expedition. Another empty planet with rocks and inhospitable atmosphere, gravity comparable to earth and no life. But the orbital scans revealed a glassy black surface, like the eye of a raven. And several layers beneath its cold exterior - the presence of an element that could fuel the atmospheric processors on earth for millions of years.
That was two days ago.
Captain Rohan Fernandez, Mohini's boss had placed the INSO Dwaraka on an orbit around the planet. He had tasked her with prepping the crew and leading the expedition. It delighted her that Captain Fernandez was confident in her abilities to lead the mission on her own.
"It is the right time for you to head these trips, after all, you will take over from me soon," he had said with pride.
Mohini was like a daughter to the Captain. He was a hard taskmaster, but a great mentor. He wanted to see her succeed.
Mohini, a team of miners and the science officer made the journey to the surface of the planet on the drop ship. It detached from the main spaceship, carrying with it tons of mining equipment, including 248.
Once they reached the surface, it had a taken them 4 hours to manoeuvre 248 to the spot with the most reserves of the yet unnamed mineral.
Presently, the giant mining robot locked on the dig site and drilled its footholds into the surface of the planet.
Mohini was analysing the readouts on her screen when the door to the cockpit opened.
"About those earthquakes," Ruchi Saxena the chief science officer said, as she approached Vice Captain Mohini with a data pad, "they seem to occur at regular intervals."
"And intensity?" Mohini questioned.
"Similar in intensity to each other."
"So you are uncertain?" Mohini said, raising an eyebrow.
"There is always the possibility," Ruchi responded.
"Hmm," Mohini said.
"We have loaded the information onto 248's computer. The projections show the platform will be safe even if the intensity ramps up. Again, I can only go by what the modelling tells me."
"And this drop ship?"
"Oh, we are A OK."
"Good to know doctor."
"Just call me Ruchi,"
Mohini smiled at her talented science officer, "Have you loaded the data onto our mainframe?"
Mohini jumped onto the master console and initiated an analysis of the data to double check the advice.
Ruchi looked mildly offended for a second, but then smiled. She understood it was procedure and the expedition leader's duty to run the checks.
The screen flashed the results of the query - 'Safety rating B+. Confirming the Chief Science Officer's advice.
The INSO Project Standards Office considered B+ to be a high enough rating to warrant a go ahead for space expeditions. Such was their faith in their technology.
"Thanks for your advice, Ruchi. You may go now," Mohini said, dismissing the science officer.
Ruchi was a career scientist, a priest at the altar of science. Mohini trusted her scientific acumen. And like Ruchi, she knew in her heart that the best you could do was trust the processes they had in place and make the best call. It was the painful price of leadership that, when things failed, the person signing off on the task bore the scars of the poor outcomes. But Mohini was yet to have any failures logged in her service record, and she didn't know how she would cope in the face of overwhelming guilt. Hopefully, today wouldn't be one of those days, given the life of her husband and the planet-side crew depended on her making the right decision.
She typed a message from the dropship's cockpit and beamed it to INSO Dwaraka, the twinkling behemoth in the sky, keeping a close watch on her.
The message read: "I am approving the operations based on the information at hand, safety projections and risk management protocols."
"Sounds great. You got this," came the reply from Captain Fernandez.
She turned her attention to the camera feeds from 248. Her husband, Chief Miner Dev Prasad, was calibrating the boring unit with the help of his colleagues. They were trainee flight officer Sudhir Sinha, his best friend and a new transferee to the INSO Dwaraka and Dev's second in command, assistant miner, Raghuram Nagar.
Their grey space suits and helmets protected them from the harsh, inhospitable environment, as they pulled down levers and pressed buttons to guide the large 18 foot borer close to the surface. The borer looked like the tip of a pencil covered in diamonds.
"Borer in place," Dev said into his comms unit.
An earthquake rocked the platform.
Big enough to rattle 248's platform, but not enough to knock down Dev and his team.
Mohini patched into the comms relay and spoke to her husband. "You ok?"
"Yes, I'm good."
"I am glad you didn't take a tumble."
"Nah, they are not strong enough."
"Ruchi tells me, we can expect these in regular intervals. She thinks the intensity will be about the same. She also said there are no guarantees," Mohini said.
She heard her husband laugh. This brought a smile to her lips. She loved his infectious laughter and warm personality. It kept their marriage going on earth and here in space. That and his undying support for her career. She felt lucky to have a man like him in her life.
She looked at him longingly on the screen.
"I am giving you the OK to go ahead," she said.
"Love you," he said.
"That is not an appropriate response to your Captain Chief Miner Dev Prasad."
That beautiful laughter again.
"Love you too," she responded.
"You heard her boys," Dev said, rotating a finger in the air like a helicopter's blades. Sudhir and Raghuram acknowledged his signal with a thumbs up and entered the control room on the borer. She felt somewhat relieved that two competent people were onboard 248 to support her husband. In case of trouble, they would have his back.
Sudhir always looked at her funny, like he had carnal intentions. But Mohini had chalked that to a personality quirk, given how long both her husband and Sudhir had been friends. He was a topper at the academy. Sudhir was being primed by the high command to take on Mohini's current role, when she was eventually promoted to Captain rank. It kept her awake at night. The stress of being a Vice Captain was bad enough.
The other man on 248 with her husband was Raghuram. Dev called him the most competent mining officer to come out of INSO Space Mining Intensive Program. In his mind there was no doubt that he would take over his role once he retired.
Mohini had to concur - on the choice of his successor and the plans to leave the service together, to enjoy a cosy retirement in her Mother's Organic Farmhouse near Baroda.
Dev was now completing his last checks before switching on the machine.
This was the scary bit - walking outside the control room of 248, along the catwalks, inspecting the borers intricate mechanisms, visually checking for any signs of damage or malfunction the computer scan might have missed.
Dev ticked off the checklist on his data pad as he strolled along the gantries on both sides of the boring unit.
A minor earthquake rocked them.
Mohini looked on in alarm. Dev strolled along like nothing had happened.
Stop panicking, Mohini. He has a suit. He is wearing a safety harness. She said to herself. But the knot in her stomach grew tighter.
"Get into the control room, Dev," she said.
"Yeah, yeah," Dev responded.
A large rock shot up from the surface of the planet and crashed into the catwalk, mere centimetres away from where Dev was standing a second ago. It decimated the metal, creating an enormous gap on the floor. It also shattered the railings, snapping Dev's safety harness off his belt.
Dev was knocked to his feet, and he slid over the edge where he hung by his fingers on the twisted edge of the damaged catwalk. His body dangled over an array of vents which opened up on the surface of the planet around the borer. It spewed hot yellow steam and threw up rocks of varying sizes. They barely missed Dev, who squirmed like a worm on a hook.
"No," Mohini shouted at the screen. She pressed the emergency button, activating rescue protocols.
But everything happened in an instant.
Raghuram, the assistant miner, rushed out of the control centre on the earth borer to help his manager, but another earthquake shook the platform and he fell and hit his head. It knocked him out cold. Sudhir, Dev's best friend, who was right behind Raghuram, held onto the railing as the powerful tremor hit 248. As a result, he did not fall .
For a second it looked like there was hope as Sudhir' found his footing and inched towards Dev, whose fingers were about to slip.
"Please, please, please," Mohini prayed. She could see Dev's grip failing on the camera feed.
Sudhir closed in on his friend rapidly. But mere centimetres away from Dev, his footing grew unstable, and he fell on his face.
Mohini's sensors don't record any tremors that might have destabilised him, but then again she was not standing on an unstable catwalk on a platform, which was at the mercy of the shifting plates of the planet and rocks the size of little houses, rushing up from the planet's surface, to shred the metallic legs of the borer.
Sudhir crawled towards his friend, but before he could reach him, Dev lost his grip and fell into the cavernous depths of a steaming well; into the molten heart of Grah 91 Taxxon, taking with him Mohini's hopes and dreams.
Her screams filled the cockpit as she watched more rocks crash into 248.