Darkness Between the Stars – excerpts


Authors note: All posted excerpts are rough, uncorrected text only.

Part 1.0

1.0.1

The whole cavern shook, fragments drifting out from the wall to form a dusty grey nimbus around every light fitting. Danial slapped his visor down, locking it as red and blue flashing vacuum alarms lit the dusty air. The mine was catastrophically losing pressure and mini tornadoes were fluttering away into long streams of airborne dust, choking what little air was left. “System core! What the splash is going on out there?” He demanded over the comms channel, scrambling for traction with too sluggish feet in the tiny gravity field.

“We are under attack by a Cerberus Delta class.” Reported the Core Artificial Intelligences smooth voice. “They are using a mass driver to bombard asteroid surface at locations AF Delta through to KZ Epsilon with half metre sized chondritic masses. Breaches at GF, GL, and HJ Delta. Atmospheric loss critical. Evacuate immediately. Evacuate Immediately.”

“Attacking? What the hell for? We pay our taxes, don’t we?” Danial clumsily slo-mo scrambled through a set of double pressure doors with a hiss of dissipating atmosphere, and out into a rocky three metre diameter passageway in the heart of their asteroid mine. He kicked forward, grabbing at anything to pull himself along, almost swimming out to the tunnel mouth in near vacuum. As he reached the half kilometre wide central cavern, in the middle distance he could see the bright electric yellow cylinder of the Trieste’s command module, a haven of warmth, gravity and clean air. The civilian Amber and white Navigation lights already on and flashing.
“Intercepting incoming masses with delivery mass driver.” Reported the AI. Smart move for a dumb machine, Danial thought as he hooked up his safety retrieval zipline to the snap links on his E-Suit. If it would do any good against a warship.

He grimaced as the retrieve line sharply yanked him out into the sporadically spotlit dusty void. Gripping tightly onto wide looped handgrips, he noted with a glance three other E-suited figures already on their way down the retrieval ziplines. “Sing out!” He half shouted over the local circuit.
“Prad!” Pradhur Mowendashar, lighting and drone repair tech.
“I’m good!” He recognised the panic-contralto of Cheryl Mackintosh, lead machinist and E-tech. The object of much lustful but so far furtive thinking.
Da, also.” The heavily Moscow accented English of their lead pilot and mass driver supervisor, Grigor Chekvko.
That left Con O’Neill, chief fixer and lead astro-engineer unaccounted for. He frantically hoped she was on board.
Asteroid mining, Danial thought, had sounded such a good idea when he and Grigor had first hit on the idea in a Los Angeles bar five years ago. Getting the Trieste fitted out and operational had meant spending two years composing business models, crunching numbers, and pitching bids to cynical corporates for venture capital, yet another year getting the Trieste built and fitted out. For the first two years of mining the money had been really good, they’d kept well ahead of the payments and tax demands with a little put aside, but now this? What the frack was going on?

In the dark recesses of his mind an administrative detail stirred. Something one of the Lawyers had said. Something along the lines of ‘don’t worry about security’ because no-one would ever dare break the treaties. As if to echo his dark little suspicion, Con’s sarcastic Boston Irish brogue came over the comms. “No-one breaks treaties, huh? Come on kids. Get inside and hunker down.” Internally, Danial breathed a sigh of relief. The whole crew was safe.
“Troop carrier has just entered detection range.” So they were going to put boots on this piece of rock, huh? The one his crew had spent the last two years burrowing through for precious rare earths. The AI was ahead of him. “Human crew prepare for evacuation. Self destruction sequence initiated.” Already, semi autonomous mining drones were swarming out of myriad little burrows. The mass driver could be rebuilt in a day, the defence AI could be reseeded elsewhere and fed by a single mining drone, but why this, why now?

Ahead of him, the external racks were already filling with mining drones, manic yellow and black half metre long bees bumbling along, riding little puffs of gas to their places on racks attached in near zero gee, tiny Nav lights flashing, to the forty five metre long chunky lozenge of the Trieste. The Trieste was already floating away from the rock face, anchor cables already disengaged. So who was at the controls?

At midpoint his zipline stopped accelerating and his stomach lurched a little as he went into complete free fall. “This is asteroid mining station Trieste Bonanza. Cease fire. We are an unarmed mining operation.” The AI could be heard on the emergency broadcast channel. “You are putting civilian lives at risk. Status NoThreat. Repeat. Status NoThreat.” Then the whole asteroid seemed to shiver with another impact.

Ten more seconds to the mineships hatch. “Jeebus Dan. Move.” Con’s voice came over the internal comm circuit. “Grigor’s already warming up the drive.” A pearly sheen was developing around the front and rear of the Trieste, and the mining base ships slightly scruffy bright yellow bulk was already drifting slowly towards the centre of the cavern. Six seconds and the defence AI was talking again. “This is asteroid mining station Trieste Bonanz…….” Then there was a sharp burst of static. Lines of arc light briefly ignited as cabling throughout the cavern burned out with a massive EMP pulse. Lighting flashed in little flowers of sparks, comms went silent and the cavern turned almost pitch black.

In the sudden darkness, bright spots still swimming on front of his eyes, Danial hit the outer airlock harder than he’d wanted, and his helmet banged dangerously on the external hatch rim, threatening to crack his faceplate. “Frack!” He swore. Then the outer lock door was closing behind him, disengaged zipline floating free outside.
The full sensation of drive induced artificial gravity dragged at his low-gee atrophied muscle tone and the Trieste was already moving under power, accelerating out of a tunnel towards the detection shadow of the asteroid. “Frigging claim jumpers!” Shouted an irate Con from the co-pilots seat as Danial half stumbled out of the lock onto the main flight deck. The inner door hissed sealed behind him. Con swung out nimbly, curly bronze hair swinging like a single mass around her slightly rounded Celtic features, and let Danial take up his post. From the right hand acceleration chair, Grigor gave him an austere high cheekboned skull of a grin. “Hold tight, we’re going out fast.” Danial scrabbled at his seat straps, snapping them closed with panicky fingers.

“Mining station Trieste!” Barked a sharp, slightly nasal voice from the battlecruiser. “You will stand down and surrender all illegally sequestered materials!”
“Illegal my cute and fuzzy butt.” Snarled Con. “Get us out of here, Grigor.”
“I hear you.” Grigor hit the gas. The Trieste swerved down several forty metre wide tunnels before shooting out above the plane of the elliptic at better than twenty kilometres a second. The little yellow bullet spat out of the asteroid three full seconds before the AI’s protected core detonated, splitting the irregular one point three kilometre ovoid mass into trillions of fragments. “Mine that you screwin’ claim jumper.” from the depths of her acceleration chair, Con raised a defiant finger over her shoulder. The disruption shadow of the detonation and fragments would easily shield them for an hour or so until they were far away.
“Who the chyort vozmi was that?” Grigor said in tones of disbelief.
“Looked and sounded like Defence Directorate.” Con said sharply. “Mebbe they’ve decided to do some private enterprise of their own.”
Da. Defence Directorate Destroyer D2371. Cerberus Class. Twelve human crew and enough firepower to level a city.” Grigor confirmed. “Get us out of this sector and down into Earth Lunar. I want to get onto the live newsfeed channels, find out what the frack’s going on.”
“I can work us a clear run below the ecliptic.” Daniel calculated furiously, fingers dancing in, over and around the Trieste’s holographic control interface. “AI. Calculate fuel for transition to Earth lunar orbit and Canaveral base.”
“Insufficient.” Came the smooth, inflection free answer.
“By how much?” He felt the panic rising at the back of his throat.
“Eight point four percent.”
“How so?” He asked desperately.
“Auxiliary fuel module rupture. All reserves gone.” A glance at the rear cameras showed a cloud of expanding vapour behind them, riffling into tightly packed lozenge shapes as it passed through the alternating rear drive field. Stacked like cool white wafers of vapour, gradually spreading and fading. “Frack!” Danial swore. “Mass reduction strategies? Can we jettison the drone racks to lose mass?” He asked the Triests’s internal AI.
“Negative.”
“How about the auxiliary fuel module? The empty one?”
“Negative.”
“How much mass do we have to lose?”
“Twelve hundred and thirteen point six two kilo’s.” Way, way too much inertia.
“Life support?”
“At optimum power, one hundred and ninety four point three one solar days.” The AI’s bland voice responded.
“Sub optimum?”
“Three hundred and eighty seven for total crew survival on predominant sleep rotation.”
“At sub optimum, how much extra fuel for drive?”
“Three point six one percent.”
“Looks like we take the long way home.” Commented Grigor, sourly.
“What in Jesus’ name was that for?” Con broke in. “It’s not like we were unlicensed or anything.”
“Set a course, vector zero point zero niner. Right at the sun. We can coast down the gravity well for a couple of days. Save fuel that way.” Danial decided. “Drop us a couple of million klicks behind projected Earth solar orbit. We can pick up lunar gravity and use it to swing into geostationary. Park at the Free Port orbital transit station for fix and refuel before we slide home.” It was the slow way, but at least they would get there alive.
“Got it.” The forty five metre long yellow cylinder swung sunwards. “Sixty four.” Grigor confirmed their coasting speed at sixty four kilometres a second. With a few deft dabs on the attitude controls, he swung the Trieste end over end so the local drive nozzles were pointing forward. “Acceleration point zero zero two. Internal gravity off. Might as well save some power that way.” He added after a pause. There was a sudden sensation of lightness and a need to swallow.

Daniel took a glance at his crew. Christine was almost in tears. Prad looked as miserable as he’d ever seen him. Con was blushing angrily at the screen, where she watched their erstwhile home expanding in a cloud of fragments. “Just making a fecking living, that’s all we were doing. Fecking military!”
“We’re too far out for real time radio comms. I’ll have to send text only in to the Mining License Board on Earth and wait for response.” Danial bit back on his immediate anger, and began typing.
“If you get one.” Prad said softly.
“What’s that mean?”
“If they’re turfing out freelancers like us, it means the new administration wants to shut private asteroid mining down for good.” Prad replied.
“But why turn up and just start firing? It doesn’t make sense!” Christine wailed.
“Hey, we’ve been out of direct touch with Earth for the last two years. Anything might have happened.” Con said sourly.
“Incoming transmission. Recording.” The Trieste’s inbuilt Artificial Intelligence spoke up. “Origin; Earth orbit. Message reads; all Asteroid Mining licences cancelled by order North American Solar Resource Administration, San Diego, California. Non compliance will be met with immediate military force. All licenced mining operations must cease and return personnel to home base. It is a repeat message.”
“What! How old is the original?” Danial started.
“Seven point three six solar days.” The AI responded smoothly.
“What the frack are they playing at! There’s at least six major corporate outfits they’ve just shut down. Not to mention the dozens of little guys like us!” Con snarled.
“Hey, that’s an old message. How come we didn’t get it within the first hour of transmission?” Danial directed his question to the onboard AI.
“For the past twelve solar days Trieste mining base has been transiting Mars’ comm shadow.” The AI explained smoothly.
“Yeah, but we were getting data downloads via relays.” Protested Con, then her eyes went wide and she covered her mouth. “Feck!” She said, as the realisation hit her. “We got the entertainment relay downloads from Phobos station, but not the main comms feed. Oh shit! I should have realised.”
“Hey, Con. Don’t fuss it. We were all so busy we didn’t notice.” Danial stared at the holographic display gloomily. Now they were clear of Mars’ comms shadow, the AI formed a 3D map of what was going on across the whole Asteroid belt.

“Trieste, this is Alcazar.” A new voice came over the real time comms. Daniel recognised the ID as another Trieste sized mining outfit normally based about three light-seconds away. Close enough for a near real time conversation. Not that they’d ever made time for social chatter. Too much work to do.
“Hi, Alcazar. I’m Danial Orsini, expedition leader. How’s it hanging with you guys?”
“Just got booted off our farm by the Feds, Danial. I’m Huss Bahur. We got out about an hour ago ahead of the raider. Currently paralleling your course at one tenth of a light second distant and towing a full pod of refined Samarium.”
“You knew?”
“Yeah. We thought that we’d take it down to the wire and extract the most ore we could.” Huss said amiably. “All we left the Feds was junk and fourth rate deposits. How about you guys?”
“We didn’t get the memo until after we got blasted out.” Danial felt deeply embarrassed. He considered himself a sharp operator, a skilled negotiator and capable leader, but this situation had caught him completely off guard.
“Squat. That’s pretty harsh. Hey! we’re still alive, yeah?” Huss seemed highly relaxed about the Alcazars loss. “As soon as we’ve delivered, me and the homie’s are going to try extrasolar. Bigger operation, more funding, bigger rewards. No more expensive licensing.”
“Looks like you’re getting out better than broke.”
“Like I say, we were all packed up and ready to go when the Feds came calling. Saw you guys get toasted. Watched the fragging and thought you’d all gone kablooie. Had us worried there. Used your diversion to pick up our stash and hightail it on a low energy trajectory towards our Lunar delivery point. The Feds were so busy dodging your fragments they missed us completely.”
“Sounds like you made your own luck.” Said Daniel bitterly.
“Luck, schmuck. Ain’t no such animal. Just good information and careful planning.” Huss said blithely. “Any of you guys want to team up? On the extrasolar thing I mean? We’ll need a twenty strong crew, minimum, and it saves us hunting around for people who might not have your experience of ultra low gee mining.”
“We’ll think about it.” Danial said, a little too curtly.
“No ish on that one.” Huss replied. Danial could almost hear the grin. He knew the Trieste’s crew would be calling him within an hour of pitching dirtside. Then the connection disappeared.
“Right. If my figures are accurate, at best we’re no better than even.” Prad flipped the file out to everyone’s iCell. “No fat bonuses, just base contract rate.” He added.

“I was planning to buy houses for my entire family.” Con’s amber eyes were moist. “How the feck did I let this one past?”
“Not your fault Con. We’ll be home in a month, and hey, who knows?” Christine was a little red eyed, but bravely trying to show she wasn’t beaten.
“Look Con. Even if we’d had the seven days warning, we’d still only have broken one tenth load better than even.” Danial tried to console her.

“One feckin’ more tenth load would have done me just fine.” Her native blue collar Boston accent grew broader.
“Still alive, aren’t we?” He snapped. “Look Con, the money wouldn’t have done us any good dead, okay? Just crawl into your zip and cry yourself to sleep like the rest of us.” He added in a more conciliatory tone. He glanced around the five metre long upper control cabin.

Christine had already disappeared into the lower sleeping and washing area without a word. A petite girl with a killer figure and elfin, almost oversized blue eyes, she’d been working as an exotic Dancer when Danial and Grigor had gone looking for qualified machinists. Maybe that’s what she’d go back to if the Asteroid belt got closed to everyone. Con had been working bar and table in some illegal Cocktail lounge. Wearing too short skirts and trying to avoid the clientelles questing hands. Danial had been scraping by as a junior Accountant with an expensive weekend passion for flying antique aircraft. Grigor had been a contract cargo pilot for a parcel carrier. Prad had been the only one actually working in Aerospace, designing seat covers for passenger carriers.

All young dreamers, part of the great American underemployed when the Omega drive had kicked off relatively cheap space travel. On the crest of the intersolar gold rush they had shipped outbound, full of the dreams of riches they thought hard work and enterprise would bring. Now here they were with a near empty cargo pod, drifting Earthwards with possible bankruptcy staring them in the face.

The Trieste’s internal AI reported the warship and troop carrier had vectored out of normal space / time. Presumably to harass another small time mining operation who were hanging on until the very last second. Grigor slipped out of his acceleration chair and flipped over the top, showily somersaulting towards the lower cabin hatch. Danial gave him a small sickly smile. Even his Russian friends comic zero gee acrobatics couldn’t raise his leaden heart. Prad was down below, Danial could hear him playing some Computer game on the middle deck. Con had gone to her sleeping booth, or ‘zip’ as everyone called them, to cry herself to sleep over their loss, and that just left him in the command cabin, trying to do nothing as constructively as he could. He doffed his e-suit helmet, ran stubby fingers over a poorly shaven scalp and leaned back, watching the scanner display, noting that their craftier counterpart a tenth of a light-second away was keeping station with the Trieste. The mass alarms were silent now they were mostly clear of the Asteroid belt. AI could do collision avoidance on its own so there was little to worry about but an impecunious return home. Fracking Feds!

Maybe there was some approved extrasolar mining operation he could get recruited for. Although last time he’d applied for a colony based operation there had been a three year waiting list, and the Colonisation Directorate didn’t usually recruit anyone who’d ever been a freelancer. ‘Wrong mindset’ they’d said when he last applied. They only seemed to like people who would mindlessly toe the company line.

Awkwardly twisting in zero gravity, he flipped out of the command chair, glancing over his shoulder to double check Grigor’s autopilot settings. Then he slipped out of his Bright yellow E-suit and stowed it in the back compartment of his bulky acceleration chair. Pink and sweaty, he clambered into his more usual scruffy, slightly threadbare flight coveralls before returning to his seat at the controls.

Little spare power for water reclaim meant rationed steam tube time. Meaning the Environmental filters were going to need more frequent attention to prevent at least half a dozen ways to be suffocated or poisoned. Danial double checked the settings and grimaced. Precious power was going to have be sacrificed to ensure they got home alive and relatively unharmed. It was, he reflected, going to be a long and smelly months run back to Earth.

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