From Asteroids to Dust
by Priya Chand
Geianti Carropus—Gen, for short—piloted her shuttle through the asteroid belt with deft claws. Gen was a deinonychus, a strong-legged predator whose ancestors subjugated prey across Earth. And now here she was, tail lifting as she whizzed past space rocks.
Leftover dust puffed across her viewport, but Gen knew her training facility’s asteroid field like all 300 steps of her family’s longest dance routine. She kept her sickle-claws from scratching the shuttle floor. Some things evolution couldn’t turn off, like the hunt—or the dance. Her shuttle had been recently re-sheathed in protective synthrubber—better not damage it.
Gen reached her mining carrier as it sucked a fresh dust cloud into its bottom grille, inhaling the rich metals and spitting the rest back into the void. The carrier resembled a giant fern; its “fronds” were individually sealed pods, each with a door the size of a long-extinct brontosaurus.
One of these opened, expelling a mecha with enormous arms onto an asteroid. Upon landing, the mecha started pummeling, sending dust plumes up.
Gen screeched and altered course. Yes, dinosaurs should practice mining in those giant mechas. She ran a training facility, after all. But nobody mined without her permission.
Twisting her shuttle’s control-bar, Gen landed atop the mecha currently smashing the asteroid—mining for metal-dust. Once her shuttle locked into place, she dropped down the mecha’s access-hatch. She was slightly larger than the average raptor, with extra-sharp sickle-claws… which pierced synthrubber when she landed inside.
The trainees were so intent on mining, they didn’t hear her cursing. She flapped her arms and screeched.
Across the bridge, five raptors in filtration suits turned. Five sets of predatory eyes landed on Gen, but they knew who had the brightest feathers here. Gen wasn’t a miner, but years of prestigious dance training gave her a good eye and terrifying discipline.
The pilot clutching the main control-bar cheeped, tail raised in alarm. “Deino Gen!”
“Malki,” Gen hissed. “Your group is overdue. Your exam starts soon.”
“Five more minutes to try Velo Drien’s maneuver? You know, my great-great-great-aunt?” A century ago, these asteroids bombarded Earth; Malki, like most of Gen’s trainees, had ancestors among the original meteor-stopping pilots. No surprise there, given the large, healthy raptor clutches that had arisen thanks to metal-dust technology. Malki clearly expected Gen to fold, since raptors and deinonychus were practically the same species. But species loyalty only went so far.
“Final exams start in fifteen minutes,” Gen snapped. “No extensions. Anything less than a perfect score means a trip straight home, no second chances. Trainees, you were lucky. Remember, there are so many waiting prospects. Thousands of raptors fight for the chance to space-mine—any of them will gladly take your place.”
Malki lowered her head. All five raptors activated their control-bars, lifting the mecha immediately.
“See you at base,” Gen called, returning to her shuttle.
Malki and her fellows had finished their exams and, depending on their results, boarded shuttles either to Earth or new assignments—but they’d tracked dust everywhere. Trainees always did.
On Earth, her family’s stages were cleaned and repaired after every performance. Gen’s training station was just as important to her, but out here that was impossible. As she vacuumed, she considered purchasing better filtration suits. Reduce the dust, at least.
Gen stretched her neck, relaxing her sickle-claws. Her whole base was covered in synthrubber. She constantly had to step lightly, lest she slice through and scratch the metal beneath. Yet Earth’s orbit was currently taking it away from the asteroid belt, stopping travel for some months. She’d be alone on the station, which at least meant less dust.
Besides vacuuming, Gen spent this enforced free time un-disappointing her family, whose dance troupe was respected on both sides of the Tethys Ocean, by practicing her steps. Not that she’d ever tell them. Your pinions should be at a 45, not 46, degree angle! She shuddered. Having a clutch of zealous siblings was bad enough.
Gen was doing tail warmups when the phone rang.
It was Plostrina Jayrum, an old deinonychus-friend who chirped greetings before asking, “No vidscreens yet?”
“I run a training station, Plosi. I only have a tenth of your budget.” Plosi would know—she’d gotten Gen this job.
“You’re missing the latest in metal-dust technology,” Plosi said smugly. “My entire facility’s getting vidscreens.”
“How nice,” Gen grunted, slightly breathless.
“You sound busy. Keeping the pack in line?”As head of a mining consortium, Plosi would also know Gen wouldn’t have trainees right now. Gen’s blood quickened: Plosi knew Gen was doing dance warmups… and was mocking her for it. A larger predator razzing a smaller one.
“Hilarious, Plosi. Again, what’s up?”
Clanking from Plosi’s end, a raptor’s screech: Wrong way, idiot! Plosi hissed. “Newbies just started. Someone inserted the control-bar backwards.”
“All yours, Plosi.” Gen meant it. She didn’t need her famous last name to intimidate trainees. But Plosi was twice Gen’s size, and an ex-miner. She terrified her underlings. Face-to-face, she scared Gen, too.
Plosi’s voice softened, though, the mockery fading. “Anyway. I’ve got new miners. Mmm. Wait.” Gen heard the door click. “Miners. I was saying.” She warbled unhappily. “You know how the Laurasian Council enforces that quota?”
Gen crooned sympathetically. The Laurasian Council was raptors, plus one cera brought on to prove there wasn’t any pro-raptor bias in Earth’s largest government. That cera was constantly rumbling about protecting cycad swamps from development.
“You’ve got cera-miners?” Gen asked.
Unlike raptors, ceras were four-footed; they piloted with teeth instead of claws. Someone had finally built a control-bar that responded to claws and teeth, and now every mining crew had to hire ceratopsians—no bias, no exceptions. But those three-horned, plate-headed ceras kept demanding better control-bars, better suits, better rations.
Plosi hissed. “They claim my control-bars aren’t responsive enough. As if mechas are difficult to pilot!”
“They’re not,” Gen agreed. A mecha had five control-bars, but basic mecha-piloting only required one pilot using one main control-bar to bring in a moderate amount of metal-dust. Her trainees usually learned basic piloting within a day.
“Still, you know how much work we’ve done to make these mechas cera-friendly.”
“I don’t train ceras,” Gen reminded Plosi. The cera trainer was three days’ shuttle away in the asteroid belt.
“But your control-bars can handle them, right?”
Gen rumbled in concession. “Yes.”
“Perfect. The nerve, insisting my equipment isn’t good enough! Craters. Everything I use is up to code. They need extra practice. Five raptors can pilot a mecha through advanced maneuvers for good hauls. But ceras are so big, one takes up most of the bridge. I try to send one raptor along, but even so, they take forever to meet dust quotas.”
Gen extended a leg, restarting her warmups. “Plosi. Assuming they’ll fit inside my mechas, you want me to send your ceras on… training runs? They’re already certified miners, aren’t they?”
“I have to update my control-bars, Gen.” Plosi’s voice sounded odd. “Just need a few days. And maybe with your, uh… dance expertise” —Plosi snickered— “they’ll finally learn proper mecha-piloting. I’ll send some raptors, too. There’s a few slackers; maybe they’re spending too much time with the ceras. Tell them it’s normal work, not extra training. I’ll cover their wages and metal-dust commissions. Are we… warm?”
That question, half-hissed between Plosi’s teeth, held an implied you owe me.
Gen was curious about the ceras, and Plosi had gotten her out here, away from her dance-troupe family. “We’re warm. Send them.”
There weren’t any mornings in the asteroid belt, but Gen’s base lights were synchronized to Desert Velo Standard Time.
They’d just warmed to post-dawn when an alert cawed. Groaning, Gen rolled from her nest, brushing herself clean of, what else, synthrubber and dust. Nests on Earth were made with miscellaneous scraps and discarded feathers, but Gen didn’t think she’d ever sleep among stiff quills again.
She’d dispatched Plosi’s crew onto the asteroids for unsupervised practice—or, as Gen told them, normal work. They were already miners, so she’d skipped her usual instruction. The ceras were sullen, but oddly determined. They’d insisted on departing two hours early. Plosi was probably right; she’d said they needed more practice. The smallest of Plosi’s ceras were twice Gen’s body length, with thick scaly tails slapping the deck as they waited to board the carrier, heads the size of Gen’s whole body. They’d squeezed themselves into her mechas in the pale predawn lighting. Was that lone cera on the Laurasian Council this big?
The cawing-alert meant someone had returned—seven hours early. Gen headed for the dock, intercepting two raptors helping a triceratops along, their feathers squashed against his scaly bulk. They’d removed their filtration suits, tracking dust everywhere.
“Deino Gen,” one raptor chirped. “Borri here”—his head flitted to the cera—“failed safety check.” The other raptor—Tanga, if Gen remembered correctly—chirped in agreement.
Gen ground her teeth. Cratering ceras. No wonder Plosi was exasperated. “Please call the emergency starlift when this happens.”
Borri looked away. “Emergency medical services are docked from our pay.”
Gen’s claws crooked in irritation. Considering how lucrative metal-dust was, she was sure Plosi would cover the starlift fee. Not that it mattered. Ignoring safety protocol was inexcusable. “In space,” she enunciated in her best trainer’s voice, “we call starlifts at the first sign of trouble.”
“Just calling is expensive,” Borri rumbled.
“I’ll cover it.”
Borri’s horns lifted. “You will?”
“Of course! Your life is worth more than metal-dust. Doesn’t Plosi—”
Borri immediately tongued a sensor in his jaw.
A starlift operator answered from wall speakers. “Starlift services, what’s your emergency?” A raptor, from the pitch of his voice.
“Nothing serious,” Borri said.
“Borri, you fainted.” Tanga shifted from one claw to the other.
“Are you still sick?” the operator asked.
“No!” Borri rumbled. “Just need to eat something.” He coughed, in bass tones that reverberated through Gen’s hollow bones.
He’d fainted? And the way he’d suddenly complied when Gen mentioned Plosi… But what did Gen know about ceras? Maybe they fainted often, to get out of work, like Plosi said.
Bori coughed again. “I’m a cera…”
“A cera?” the operator hissed. “Please don’t waste time. We’re extremely busy.” The line disconnected.
Gen sniffed Borri, senses attuned from the fitness training that came with dance practice. The starlift operator hadn’t been concerned, but Borri looked on the verge of collapse.
“Can we go back?” he asked.
“If you eat something,” Gen replied. “It’s just practice, though. You really want to go back?”
Borri snorted. “Want? Deino Gen, this has nothing to do with want. We need the money.” His low voice cracked erratically. “So many cycad swamps are being converted into housing.” He shook his head, wafting the recycled air. “My hatchlings need to eat.”
Gen’s own deinonychus family, which had expanded rapidly—all those healthy clutches—bought new land wherever it was available. Could those gross, crocodile-infested swamps be important to other dinosaurs?
Gen’s nostril slits tightened. She’d thought Borri smelled ill, but now she found his dusty scent annoying. “What does converting cycad swamps have to do with anything?”
“Ceratopsians eat cycads,” Tanga chittered quietly. “Without the swamps, they’ll starve.”
Gen’s feathers ruffled. She felt hot. “Well… I didn’t mean…”
Borri’s beak clicked. “It’s fine. We’re wasting time.”
Gen authorized their departure with a trill. Despite her rustling feathers, she barely noticed their shuttle’s departing whoosh. Her thoughts roiled, twisting between Plosi’s words… and Borri’s. She warbled at the dust on her nice synthrubber, a perfect imprint of his huge scaly tail.
Dinner for the herbivorous ceras was nutri-bars, which even Gen ate while monitoring the mechas from her office. They were pure energy, designed to sustain ceras and keep raptors from wondering just how their fellow miners tasted. Not that anyone would admit to sampling another dinosaur, especially with the ceras around. Gen thought the ceras would be grateful, but watching them cough over theirblocky nutri-bars soured her.
Ceratopsians eat cycads, Tanga had said.Without the swamps, they’ll starve.
Tanga was a raptor. Why did she care about ceran food?
For the other raptors, however, dinner was a proper feast, served on bolted-down tables. On their synthrubber surfaces gleamed large spotted eggs—100% pterodactyl DNA.
Some of Plosi’s raptors took their time. Others tore in, slurping the creamy yolk.
Gen licked gooey remnants off her teeth, listening to the drifting chatter. The ceras ate silently, occasional coughs punctuating the raptors’ conversation about life after their two-year mining stints.
“I’ll be recruiting asteroid miners on Earth.”
“My clutch-siblings have your number, right?”
“Better more raptors than… these ceras…”
Gen was amazed they even needed recruiters. Last she’d heard, the waitlist included some of her own aunts. Plosi kept pressuring her to stay, but asteroid mining wasn’t in Gen’s blood. She’d saved a tidy sum to buy her own land… but Borri’s words echoed troublingly.
So many cycad swamps are being converted into housing.
A hacking sound pierced the recycled air.
It continued, and before Gen knew it, she was pushing past tree-trunk cera legs, wincing as her pinions bent.
Carnivore and herbivore eyes alike were wide, centered on the collapsing triceratops between them. Borri, from this morning.
“Deino Gen!” Tanga shrieked. “He was eating, and then… I’ve checked his gullet—no obstructions!”
Gen arched her neck towards the gasping cera. After the fainting spell, he’d gone back out, returned with the rest and cleaned up before dinner—although Gen noted dust on his horns.
“Come on, Borri.” She peered into his beak-jaws. Tanga was right: Borri was choking on nothing, legs buckling, tail thrashing. “Stay with me,” Gen crooned. “Do it for your hungry hatchlings. No more bad mechas. No more nutri-bars, I promise.”
Gen called the starlift. She’d pay. She’d buy an entire cycad swamp if that’s what got him better.
But Borri was as ashen as the asteroids when the starlift took him away.
Next morning, the cera-miners prepared for work as early as before—not that they had a choice. “I’ll check on Borri,” Gen promised. “I’ll update you tonight.”
The starlift-hospital was one of the largest structures in the asteroid belt. With the high ceiling and bright lighting, Gen felt like she was back on one of her family’s stages.
Dr. Sufiel Lexi, a tyrannosaur, was waiting against a backdrop of monitors. She would never successfully use a control-bar, but those teeny arms were astonishingly deft with the medical robot. Looking at her, Gen wouldn’t have guessed it. Her towering body screamed predator.
Gen’s deinonychus forebears were predators, too—but Dr. Lexi’s ancestors could’ve swallow them whole.
Gen ducked around Dr. Lexi’s tufted tail, which was the size of Gen’s entire body. She tried to keep her own feathers from puffing out. After all, Dr. Lexi and her long toothy jaw had sworn to do no harm.
Gen maneuvered herself closer. “What’s wrong with Borri?”
Dr. Lexi indicated a monitor displaying dark and light blobs. Her scraggly crest of head-feathers rose, then dropped as she faced Gen. “These are Borri’s lungs. See those white spots?”
“What are they?”
Dr. Lexi zoomed in on them. “Fibrosis. Half the lobe of his right lung is, as one might say, cratered. I’ve got several patients like this right now, but none so bad.”
“How bad can it get?”
Dr. Lexi stretched her heavy jaw towards Gen, who ignored her stiffening tailfeathers and focused on the doctor’s eye ridge.
“I’m not sure,” Dr. Lexi said. “I didn’t practice much on Earth. I have to renew my license yearly and this has never come up. Your trainees are fine, but it’s everywhere among the homebound miners.”
“What… Space bacteria?”
“No, nothing like that. I did some biopsies. The cera-miners are presenting…” Dr. Lexi lowered her head even further, so close Gen could see the green and gold hues in her nearest eye, the individual scales on that oddly featherless skin.
“They’re presenting with asteroid dust embedded in the alveoli of their lungs.”
Gen stumbled backwards. “Dust? How?” Sure, the stuff stuck to her feathers. But inside her body?
“No filtration suit is perfect.” Dr. Lexi straightened, her voice echoing above Gen. “Our pressurized air vents—those probably trap dust, too.”
“And the dust is killing us,” Gen warbled. “I haven’t heard about any sick raptors, though.”
“It takes prolonged exposure. You’re a trainer. You ride your shuttle out to instruct, then fly back, correct? Mining contracts are two years, but the ceras work twice as long, twice as hard. Something about not being able to operate mechas efficiently. They can’t do… advanced maneuvers? And half the ceras I’ve treated are malnourished. As if eating nutri-bars was any substitute for healthy vegetation.” Lexi shook her head.
“If I examined your lungs, Gen, I’d probably find spots. Nothing symptomatic yet, but in another few years…”
“So this will happen to everyone?” Gen asked. “Not just ceras?”
“Yes,” Dr. Lexi said. “Though it’s difficult to prove. Radiation regs keeps everyone to that two-year limit. And no one on Earth thinks to look for asteroid dust when miners get sick down there. There are other reasons for lung scans to look like this. Inhaling volcano particulates, for instance. Those eruptions constantly spew toxins.”
“We have to report this,” Gen said. “Even if the metal-dust is lucrative.”
Dr. Lexi shrugged. “I’ve sent a report to Earth. But. Well.”
Gen hadn’t known enough ceras to understand how much things were stacked against them, but she’d heard enough jokes about ‘bitey-fighty tyrannos.’
“You’re a top doctor,” Gen insisted. And a scary one, but she didn’t say that.
Dr. Lexi stared at her, heavy jaw twitching, and Gen finally understood. It wasn’t just ceratopsians that had it bad. Dr. Lexi wasn’t here for prestige, but because no matter how brilliant she was, no raptor would allow a tyranno this much autonomy on Earth. That lone cera on the Laurasian Council was practically a miracle. The preference for raptors had been easy—no, convenient—for Gen to overlook—but it hurt all dinosaur-kind.
“Those top scientists I’ve consulted,” Dr. Lexi continued, “said my data were no good, not without corroboration. My findings are currently pending review in Pneumolosteosis.”
“Exactly,” Dr. Lexi said. She flipped off the monitors. The shadows emphasized the weight of her jaw.
Gen sighed. “I… have influence on Earth.”
Dr. Lexi cocked her massive head, surprised.
Dr. Lexi’s jaw dropped, and Gen startled: she looked ready to eat Gen whole.
“Wait…your full name is Geianti Carropus, isn’t it? Like those Carropuses? The dance troupe that performs for the Council? Could they pass on my report?”
Gen looked away. Her family wouldn’t care about sick ceras. And if she was being honest today, that callousness was really why she’d run from them.
But Gen’s cousin Jargis ran the biggest newspaper in both Laurasias. Her family did not talk about Jargis, who’d published an excoriation of their latest show—a faux-historical piece featuring some regrettably designed stegosaurus costumes. Jargis’s review hadn’t held back on the portrayal of herbivore ‘humor.’
Sometimes Jargis talked about treating non-raptor species better. Gen, who only knew raptors, had always listened politely, but now those words made sense.
“I can get your work to the Mesozoic Times,” Gen said.
Dr. Lexi croaked. “Just you? Not your family? The upheaval this information will cause… they’ll—”
Gen’s left sickle-claw tore a hole in the floor. “They’ll kill me,” she finished.
Borri was propped on an enormous pallet, sides swelling with each breath. Gen approached slowly. Dr. Lexi had said he needed rest. His color was better.
“D-deino Carropus…” Borri rasped.
Gen darted over. “You know my family?”
“Recognized your name… from Plosi …” He stared towards an object on the shelf behind Gen. “Please…”
Gen grabbed it. His mouthpiece. Ceras used these to activate devices designed for clawed, two-legged species. Like the starlift hotline. Gen sniffed past its dried saliva—past its coughed-up blood scent—and clicked a button.
A crude hologram shot out.
“My hatchlings…” Borri wheezed. “I wanted… better swampland… cycads… for them…”
Gen watched the young ceras, stubby-horned, wide-eyed. “They’re lovely, Borri.”
Plosi was a ruthless business-raptor. She must’ve known about the dust problem. This was all a set-up. Phase one was getting Gen into mecha-training, talking her into applying that dancing discipline—and lack of mining experience—to churn out clueless but efficient raptor-miners. Phase two involved using Gen to get ceras, and troublesome raptors, out of Plosi’s way. Borri’s small group must’ve just been the beginning. Plosi probably meant to keep sending them, whenever she needed some inconvenient dinosaurs removed.
Why guard against the dust? The raptors weren’t sickening. Yet.
And the ceras?
Plosi’s miners had assembled by the carrier dock. Gen stood before them. One trill and they’d go.
Dr. Lexi’s blobby scans meant nothing by themselves. Easily dismissed medical babble. But Borri, unable to breathe, on that pallet—that could be any of them, ceras or raptors. It could even be Gen herself. All the mechas she’d cleaned, all that ever-present dust.
“There’s a safety issue,” Gen said. “I’m sorry, but you’re grounded.”
One of them tensed, prepared to argue. Gen shrieked, raising one leg with its wicked sickle-claw—synthrubber be damned. That reminded them who was in charge. Gen watched them go, and returned to her office.
She waited for someone to call Plosi. Sure enough, the phone rang.
“Gen, what’s happening?” Plosi actually sounded more concerned than annoyed.
“Oh, no,” Plosi warbled. And, not aloud, but audible enough, So?
“The metal-dust is killing ceras. Raptors, too, if they stay long enough. Asteroid dust enters our lungs and causes problems. Big problems.”
“Anyone have proof?”
“Dr. Lexi does.”
“That meddlesome tyranno. But it takes a long time, right?”
A little time, a long time, what did it matter? “Longer for raptors, but they leave before the symptoms show. Ceras work twice the hours…”
“So you’re saying we should stop mining? Do you want to tell all those raptors they can’t come here, because some ceras got sick? Ceras can stay on Earth. It’s the Council forcing them into space.”
Gen’s tail stiffened. “They just need better equipment, better food—”
“—That’ll cost so much it’ll shut us down. And then what happens to all our tech? What happens to you and me?”
“Look, it’s not like—”
“Don’t ruin this, Gen. Who’s going to side with one fearmonger, over all those waiting trainees? We need the metal-dust. You’re destroying our way of life over nothing.”
Gen hissed into her phone. “Vidscreens.”
Ancient hunting instincts reasserted themselves in Gen’s snarl. “Instead of better control-bars, you bought vidscreens.”
Plosi’s answering snarl was, at her size, a snarl that promised ripped throats. “Listen, you spoiled little dancer—”
Gen delivered an ear-splitting screech. Enough was enough. Yes, Gen grew up dancing. Yes, Plosi helped her escape her family’s constant pressure. And in return she’d submitted to Plosi’s mockery, learned to ignore the prejudice, because it was easier. When had she gone from predator to prey?
“G-gen… I s-see you’re upset right now, but… please don’t do anything—”
Gen disconnected. She rose, stalked onto the balcony overlooking the common area, not caring that her sickle-claws sliced through the synthrubber, scratching the metal beneath.
Plosi wasn’t completely wrong. Gen was ruined. When she returned to Earth, she wouldn’t have to worry about her narrow-minded family, because every prospective miner would be out for her blood. Raptor packs, sniffing her out, running her down. And the ceratopsians, too, trampling her for their dreams of cycad swamps. For ruining what little chance they had to get ahead.
But they’d be alive and able to breathe, until better filtration methods were developed. Raptor society would be fine. Even without metal-dust, they weren’t starving.
Gen craned her neck, hearing the miners. Some sounded angry; others urgent, afraid. The would-be recruiter was silent.
Those months alone on Gen’s station weren’t all about vacuuming and tail warmups. She’d gone out in the mechas, sold her own metal-dust. Gen wasn’t just any mecha-trainer: her dance background gave her the dexterity to operate all five control-bars on her own. She’d intended to invest in land, but maybe she’d make her getaway instead.
My hatchlings, Borri had wheezed. Better swampland… cycads… for them…
She could buy swamps. Swathes of them, before the developers came in. That cera on the Laurasian Council could probably even advise her as to whom to donate them to. Even if the council member refused to speak to a Carropus, Gen knew one lovely cera family she’d give a cycad swamp to.
It was a crazy idea. More thought required.
But first things first.
Gen returned to her office, uploaded Dr. Lexi’s data, and hit ‘send’.
One hour later, her phone rang. Urgent.
Cousin Jargis, editor-in-chief of the Mesozoic Times, wanted to talk.
About the Author
Priya Chand grew up in San Diego and now resides in the vicinity of Chicago, where she studied biology and informatics. When she’s not reading, writing, or eating, she enjoys swimming, martial arts, and long walks through museum exhibits. She has previously been published in Clarkesworld, Nature Futures, and Analog SF, among others. Website: priyachandwrites.wordpress.com; Twitter: @priyachandscifi
About the Narrator
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.