Future Tense

“Speculation”

Can there be ethical investment in asteroid mining?

Poster of a space ship on the moon.
Brian Miller/Smithsonian | Download PDF

How can portraying the future help us prepare for it? As part of the Smithsonian’s upcoming FUTURES exhibition, the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (AIB) collaborated with Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination to bring together museum experts, cultural and research centers, writers, and artists to help answer that question. Then acclaimed sci-fi writers Tochi Onyebuchi and Madeline Ashby wrote eight stories—four each—based on that work. In the story below, Ashby imagines the world of 2071, when a mini-boom of asteroid mining forays pays off in rare metals and surprising new discoveries for the citizens of Earth.

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Join Future Tense, AIB, and the Center for Science and the Imagination on Tuesday, Nov. 9, at noon Eastern to discuss the exhibit, the pieces, and the roles museums play in depicting future narratives. RSVP here.

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You are cordially invited,” the message read, “to attend the speculation audit and formal explanation of XTRKT Probe CB2071, purchased 4 July 2050 by Stubborn Little Weeds Co-operative, username: FETCH. FETCH was SLW’s first major investment in astro-mining. XTRKT has informed us that the investment is ready to pay dividends: FETCH has hit pay dirt in the asteroid belt!”

Hildegard was kicking the slush off her boots when the ping came through to her front mirror. At first she hadn’t recognize the logo. It had been 20 years, but the artists’ colony where her parents met and married hadn’t changed a single thing about their branding. Seeing the sunny yellow dandelion pulsing cheerily at her, Hildegard experienced a rush of memory. She smelled warm grass and cold lakes, old trees and new milk. She also experienced a sudden tightness in her chest. An actual pang of loss. They had been trying something new, her father insisted. Something revolutionary.

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“We’re living our values,” Dad had said, back then. “That’s the most punk-rock thing anyone can ever do.”

This was why it hurt him so much when she left. He saw it as a betrayal of their values, not an escape that meant survival in a much larger world. He had accused her of running away from a bad breakup. She had accused him of emotional blackmail.

The message was probably just a request for donations, she told herself. The only reason they would possibly chase her down after all this time was money.

As it turned out, she was right.

What little Hildegard remembered of the XTRKT investment came from her parents’ endless, circular fights about it years ago. Her father thought it was a good investment that would prolong the life and artistic freedom of the Stubborn Little Weeds Co-operative and make it less dependent on donations. Her mother thought the investment would only further legitimize the extraction industry as a whole, which she saw as fundamentally responsible for why they had to wear masks all the time and couldn’t buy coffee or chocolate.

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“The CEO is a good guy!” her father had protested.

“They all think they’re good guys,” her mother had said.

“What’s coffee?” Hildegard had asked, and her mother burst into tears.

In a strange way, those arguments formed their own orbital pattern. They revolved and wobbled, dipped and sank, always following a similar path, with subtle changes only evident over time. Her father would point to the history of XTRKT: that it was founded by a Texas billionaire who turned his back on scraping the last little bits of lithium out of Afghanistan and believed that community-run collaborative investment was the way forward for speculative astro-finance. Her mother thought it was awfully convenient of said billionaire to build on research that had been done at the public’s expense, at the Smithsonian Institution. Her father thought that XTRKT had provided a public service by using existing connections from the extraction industry to lobby for a universal right-to-salvage law in space, which hadn’t existed until XTRKT pushed Congress for it, following the Emirati model. Her mother thought that the master’s tools could never dismantle the masters’ house. She often pointed to the image of Audre Lorde saying as much, peering down on them from the accent wall where other mothers in other communities displayed Bible-verse animations on an endless loop.

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Hildegard thought of these moments as she called up the contents of her late father’s most private encrypted drive, the one he’d kept taped under the bed frame like an old-fashioned handgun, she saw it: the certificate indicating his investment, along with the colony’s, in the speculative probe. And when she checked her digest mail, there were several messages from XTRKT. They had been trying to reach her, they said. Would it be possible for a representative to meet her in person at the Stubborn Little Weeds Co-operative? They would send a ride just for her, from the meeting place of her choice.

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It’s absurd that you should have to go in person,” her mother said, when Hildegard told her why she would be returning, at long last, to the artists’ colony.

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“It’s a condition of the contract the colony made with XTRKT,” Hildegard told her. “It requires biometric identification, and the contract stipulates that remote mechanisms won’t be recognized as valid. I guess they were assuming that everyone would stay at the colony.”

“Or they just wanted to punish those that left,” her mother said. “Did they tell you what FETCH found?”

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“No,” Hildegard said. “Apparently we can only receive the preliminary report if we show up to confirm our identities in person.”

“Will you see her, there?”

“Who?”

“You know who. Rebekah.”

Just the name caused the blood to rise to Hildegard’s face. Was Rebekah still at the colony? Maybe not. Maybe her family would send another representative to the meeting. Hopefully. No sense entertaining anxiety about it, now, she told herself. They were adults. Right?

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The ride took Hildegard through miles of re-wilded land in the shadow of massive carbon-capture towers that spiked like terminations of darkening quartz from the earth. The land had changed since the last time she caught a ride out. Back then she was 17, and her heart was broken, and there was a family from her group chat that was willing to take her in. Now there was more birdsong, and more insects spattering across the windscreen. Occasionally the whisper-quiet vehicle sent an infrared flash, warning animals to avoid its path.

On the way, Hildegard reviewed the XTRKT contract. She was a child when the colony invested. The drawings of the prospector probe looked adorably quaint, years later: In the old animations it floated between asteroids like a dandelion seed, their wispy solar foils spinning them along to the next possible claim, their drills tasting the rock like butterflies sipping nectar. FETCH was the barebones model of prospector probe, the only one the colony could afford. Its sensors were best suited to rare earths, but it was also capable of detecting biomass. Since the colony (and individual investors within the colony) held majority shares of the probe’s findings, they stood to make the most from the claim—whatever the claim turned out to be.

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Other XTRKT probes had already identified new metals and combinations of metals, and one probe had discovered remnants of single-celled lifeforms that were now culturing in a “deep-space cheese cave,” in the hope that they might provide healthy bacterial cultures for future human habitats. Another fleet of more advanced probes had established a claim that later became a superconductor factory, which now made magnets available for use on satellites and a Moon base.

FETCH was programmed to stop for instructions only when it found certain things: lithium, biomass, and any metal it could not readily identify. At first the investment seemed disastrous: the colony had almost exhausted its funds on this one gamble, and only in recent years had it managed to become solvent outside of patronage by capturing carbon and selling it back to the market. Now the colonists were about to find out if they were sitting on a fortune, or if they’d found alien life. And Hildegard was about to find out if the place she’d grown up was anything like what she remembered.

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The colony had expanded. The old red barn was still there, and the split-rail gate. It swung open for the XTRKT vehicle, which drove up the long gravel drive past greenhouses and bunkhouses and playhouses for tourists and artists-in-residence. It nestled itself among its brethren sporting the XTRKT logo, and an alert on the windscreen told Hildegard to proceed to the Main House for a cabin placement. There were twelve other vehicles in the parking area. Hildegard couldn’t remember the last time she had seen so many vehicles clustered in the same space. The same superconducting materials found by early prospecting probes were now baked into the national high-speed railway, and the all-encompassing internet built on its back.

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There were more children than she remembered. Rebekah had felt like her only friend, back then. That was why it hurt so much to lose her. It was a different time. Things were bad; fewer people wanted children. Now the birthrate had actually climbed. The kids gathered, gawking at the XTRKT vehicle.

The Main House was as she remembered it: a log cabin that had once seemed huge to her young eyes. Now it was dwarfed by biocrete and mushroom-brick buildings, cladded in exoskeletal fibers that ran power and data through tiny waveform changes in the water and stored information on DNA drives. Her hand was on the doorknob when she heard steps crunching behind her.

“Hils?”

Her heart flipped. Her limbs were heavy; her body almost didn’t want to turn around. But then her eyes landed on the other woman’s face, on her smile, and her heart returned to its right place. She had come all this way to discover a fortune found among the stars, but here at home was the treasure she had left behind.

“Hi, Rebekah.”

This story is a piece of near-future science fiction, but is inspired by the real-life research and work being conducted today by Martin Elvis at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Allana Krolikowski at Missouri University of Science and technology, and Tony Milligan at King’s College London.

 Read the rest of the AIB-inspired stories on Future Tense here, and download the full poster here.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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