A MINER’S TALE
15th January 2004
“Right, now, over the shoulder, make sure you’ve got nuff space.”
Kerth’s old gentle voice helped me stay calm even with the Debris Field humming and vibrating all around me. Sims didn’t have humming and vibrating. I stretched my head around as directed, peering off to the left as the flank of the Motherlode slowly came into view, hands damp with nervousness on the ship’s controls.
“Exactly, now ease the stick off gentle-like, and let her trim out.”
The slight sensation of being pressed to the side lessened as I slowly, delicately let the controls move back to center. A short pause while the computer fired attitude thrusters to stop the ship’s rotation, then nothing, just smoothness and the whine of my freighter’s systems. The vast expanse of hull plate slid by gracefully a hundred meters away.
“Congratulations, young Spring! your first reallife launch! Feels good doesn’t it.” Kerth’s battered Harrier fighter eased into formation above and to the right of me, so I could see him waggle the stubby ship in a salute.
“That it does, sir, feels very good.” Beaming like a lunatic, not try even trying to suppress the happiness in my voice. Hundreds of sim launchs were nothing compared to doing the real thing by myself.
“You stop calling me sir now, hear? Today you earn your keep. Today, you’re a pilot.”
Now that I was no longer in danger of plowing into the side of the transporter, my focus widened and caught the starfield laid out before me. The stars looked different out here, with nothing around you to give you a sense of structure; no deck, no bulkhead. Just the curved surface of the canopy. And on the other side…They were beautiful and terrible; so pure and bright, yet cold and infinitely distant. This must be what the spacers talked about, when they said they’d never leave the stars. I knew this image, this feeling, would always be with me. It was fear and wonder, lonliness and familiarity. My eyes were frozen to the canopy for several long moments.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough, work to be done today!” and I could tell he was smiling, understanding my emotion. “You forget how to use your gravidar? Take a look around, call out what you see.”
There wasn’t a lot nearby. The Motherlode obviously, hard to miss, I was just coming up to the bow now. I felt a brief flash of irrational panic as the “wall” ended, and my entire view was open to the void. Shaking it off, remembering where the controls were, scanning for targets. Two other freighters about 7Km ahead; I targetted them so the HUD would show me where they were. Just another pair of stars, slightly yellow, glittering in the abyss. Kerth’s Harrier, hard to miss that one too since he was barely a boat-length away flying escort. And asteroids, many of them, hundreds, barely distinguishable in the permanent night.
“I see two other ships ahead of us, the…” Quickly calling up information on a secondary screen. “Rock Bottom and Sandstone.”
“And we see you too, Debris Field. Come out to give us a hand?” A new voice joining our channel.
“That’s a big affirmative, brother!” He had gone out to the rock crews two yazuras earlier. It was good to see him so happy, the first day he came back, but sad because I could see him changed. We weren’t connected as much as before: there was something different about the way he talked, and his eyes were unsettling focused. But that should change, now that I’d got the stars in me too.
“Glad to have you sis, but pick it up! We’re almost ready to make some dust here. Jastle says it’s a good rock, kin’a small but nice clean ore.”
Away from the uncertainty of my first launch, my sim practice kicked in. Without needing any guidance, I pushed my throttle up further and gently arced away from Kerth to get some safety distance.
With more than five wazuras of flight time in the sims (much to the irritation of my mother who would find me practicing flying more often than doing my lessons), I think he offered to come along as reassurance more than any need for instruction. And for something to do. He didn’t often go out—or rather, come out, I corrected myself smugly—since his friend Samals was killed in that collision with the crazy Boron buzzing our transporter. He worked down in smelting now, most days. Sometimes I wondered if I had replaced Samals. Lose a friend, gain a daughter, something like that. Well, whatever, he was nice, and funny when he put his mind to it.
“A race?” His fighter accelerated smoothly so I could see him again, then did a slow skillful roll right around my vector, keeping his belly pointed toward my ship all the way round. “Is this the best you’ve got? Want me to go pick up some lunch while you crawl along?”
“Who’s back there, Old ‘Whaddya mean, fly straight’ Kerth?”
“Fine, fine, I’ll go play somewhere else. No sense of fun at all, you people.” Click: private frequency. “I’ll be out and around if you need anything. Take care, dirty miner girl.” Another waggle, then a surge of engine power as he zoomed off to survey the asteroids that Jastle didn’t get to before the shift change.
My brother on the Rock Bottom was holding about 1Km from the asteroid ahead, training his powerful spotlight on it while Alfaban in the Sandstone moved slowly across its surface looking for where he should start the drilling. I eased my ship into position above and behind his, carefully timing my stop so that I wouldn’t need to fire the retro engines. Alfaban apparently found his drillsite just as I arrived, or was stalling to make it look like they weren’t waiting for me, since the huge tool slung under the front of his ship blazed to life as my velocity ticked through single digits then to zero.
“Standby to commence drilling!”
”Confirmed.” I remembered what mother said about the glare, and shielded my eyes with my hand as a brilliant flash light up my cockpit, and another, and another, a rhymic pulsing of glare. After a few moments, the first particles of dust hissed over my hull, frustrated by the barrier of shield energy that prevented them from scouring and grinding my fragile ship. Then bigger chunks, making Debris Field shiver as the computer fought to keep to keep the ship steady despite the rock barrage.
A last few pulses of energy as my nerves frayed under the motion of the ship, and the sound of pulverized asteroid pounding away at me, then the drill shut off. I lowered my hand.
“A clean fracture pattern,” Alfaban said, switching on his spotlight. I gasped slightly as my cockpit was again flooded with light, but this was hazy, gentle.
“Beautiful, isn’t it,” my brother whispered quietly. I nodded, forgetting that he couldn’t see me.
What had been a crystal-clear view of a dirty gray asteroid was now a cloud of dust and wildly spinning pieces of rock. The light from the spotlight came back toward us, reflected, diffused, by what was left of the asteroid. Some of it glittered like mica, some was black or brown, some looked like ice (probably was ice, my brain said quietly to nobody in particular). Swirls of color slowly spun, wakes formed behind the larger pieces like the sped-up holosims of nebulae forming.
“Well don’t just sit there silly, all the good bits will get away!” Indeed, the whole mess was slowly expanding away from us in all directions. Alfaban was already pulling away toward the next asteroid, where I could see the second team moving into position. Walta was moving down and left, chasing a piece of asteroid that looked to be fully a third as big as his ship.
I laughed happily and updated my gravidar image to track the debris. “Copy that, Debris Field moving in for collection.” I picked out the next-biggest piece from the one Walta was after, rotated my ship for an intercept course and applied a bit of engine power.
“That’s the lucky ship, you know,” he said conversationally. He’d almost caught up to his piece of rock, and his cargo bay was opening. Soon he’d be close enough to activate his mineral scoop, pulverizing it to gravel and drawing it into the cargo hold. My own rock was coming up steadily.
“Lucky? How’s that?” A barest nudge on the stick with the right hand to line up exactly behind the moving chunk of asteroid, and a swipe with the left to open the cargo bay.
“Debris Field was the first freighter that Founder Dobbs bought for the company. He’d got the Gray Alliance earlier, part ‘a the contract with the federals, but Field was the first from the company’s own profit. It’s the first ship that was right and proper ‘ours’. Well, aside from Motherlode. That’s why she’s here doing real work, and Alliance is just sittin’ in the hangar being scavenged for parts.”
“So what you’re really saying is that I got the oldest ship in the fleet!” Loud whirring and thumping as my mineral scoop chopped up the piece of rock in front of me, then crammed the bits through the subpace compressor into my cargo hold.
“I knew my sister was a smart one.” Short laugh. “But really it’s the best tended and most loved of them all. So take good care of her, you’d probably be thrown out the airlock if she came back with a ding or scratch on your shift.”
“I’ll be sure to remember. What about that beat up piece of scrap you’re flying, that got a glorious history too?”
The shift passed quickly with back and forth banter, and sometimes spans of mute labor. It was so easy to concentrate out here, so quiet: there wasn’t any murmering of fluid, talking or shouting, or the heavy tromp of boots. But also easy to get lost in that same quiet. That’s what star-mad was, the quiet got to you, made you do crazy things.
So we talked, with eachother and with the second team. Sometimes the operations crew back on the transporter would broadcast bits of news they were picking up from the federal satellite grids, or just bad jokes and bits of triva gleaned from the endless stream of freighter pilots moving through the heart of the sector far away. We were insignificant specks in a terrible void, but we were not lonely specks.
Coming back toward the transporter at the end of our shift, I was struck with a swell of pride and awe. You couldn’t really get a sense of the thing until you were out here. Standing in a corridor looking out, you could piece together in your mind about how all the rooms and sections connected together into one whole, but it was impossible to imagine the sheer majestic scale.
Not only that, the size, but the solidity. Out here there was a few mils of plastic and an intangible shell of shield energy, that was all that seperated you from the abyss. But the transporter was strong. I could see scarring and patching all over the hull, but it didn’t look abused or damaged. It reminded me of holoes I’d seen from a planetside one time, a big smooth rock, cracked, half-buried under a rotten fallen tree, covered in patches of moss and lichen, but obviously there for thousands of even millions of yazuras. Permanent.
It was a good home.
Later in the day, as the pilots were standing in the breakroom waiting for the freighters to be emptied of the day’s work before going back to their private quarters, I realized what my brother had seen, that made his eyes different. All the pilots were the same. It wasn’t anything special, not really. Most everybody took it for granted when they had it; it was invisible. It was only where this thing was so distant, such an effort to maintain, that you really recognized that you had it.
It was companionship. Being in space gave a person new appreciation for how dependant we were on eachother to stay sane, to keep going. It wasn’t distance you saw in a spacer’s eye, or mistrust or hostility that made them focus on you so carefully. It was deep and intent interest in being near you, sharing your company. Recognition. And I knew now that I would get eyes like that. All of us would.
We’d look at eachother and know, with no words needing to be exchanged. We would know the value of eachother, out here in the darkness with nothing but one another and a few subspace comm links from places we’d probably never visit. We were a family far isolated from the cozy citizens on their planets and stations, out among the fields of spinning rocks. A dirty family. A family of miners.