Scraping Stones

Story day has come back around. This week it’s a Sci-Fi story (about 11,300 words long) that is set in space, hundreds of years from now. It’s a bleak take on a possible future, but that’s just the setup for the story itself. Without saying too much I will let you know that everything is not explained, on purpose. I want you to draw your own conclusions about what you think is and has happened. But that is enough from me. Hope you like Scraping Stones.

Seven hundred years from now and there could not be a greater gulf between the haves and have nots of the human race. The fortunate having been able to long since depart Sol and spread out across many other solar systems throughout the Milky Way galaxy, while those in poverty were left to wallow and fester in the ruins of what remained and with limited resources. They’re scarce, disastrously so, and as a result the remaining humans of Sol, unable to escape the confines of their origin system due to a lack of minerals capable of building or powering near instantaneous travel engines, have split into factions. These factions fiercely protect their territorial borders as they fight to survive.

As with most things these factions are themselves weathering the shortage of resources to differing extents. Several have already fallen or been subsumed, territorially, by larger more prosperous factions. However, the majority of the systems inhabitants are not combat forces but instead miners, strip miners to be exact. They play a vitally important role in the continued existence of the five remaining factions. Without them protection of a factions territory would be almost pointless as there would be no way of extracting the meagre elements and minerals within their borders to keep the colonies they have from crumbling.

As a result the strip mining ships regularly patrol in a manner akin to what you might expect from military ships. Unlike military starships however these mining vessels are not well equipped, if at all, for ship-to-ship combat. Rather, their purpose is to ensure the security of their borders, mine smaller deposits and desperately search for potential new, previously missed resource caches.

One such mining ship is Gladius. It belongs to the Inner Ring faction which stretches from the molten Mercury to the dark side of the Earth’s devastated Moon. In fact, the shattering of Earth’s only natural satellite was the reason that the haves decided to flee to pastures new. It was the final straw, the one that broke the camel’s back.

As a result there is little that remains of the Earth as it once was. Rather, it is now barely more than an overly mined shell littered with bore holes across the largely barren land that has thus far managed to resist the swell of the torturous storms which afflict its ugly surface.

The Inner Ring as a faction are based off of a series of space stations that at one time served as the construction docks for the starships which helped carry the haves beyond the edges of Sol. To put it mildly these stations are in a state of serious disrepair and by the calculations of the ‘scientists’ of the Inner Ring, they will last little more than nine rotations. After that they will suffer, without significant repairs and refits, from catastrophic failures that will see the stations tear themselves apart irrespective of how many hundreds of thousands of lives currently inhabit them. That is why Inner Ring have been relentlessly and aggressively stripping all remaining resources within their borders in hopes of accumulating enough elements and minerals to at the very least enact repairs capable of buying themselves more time. The plan, as it always has been, is to leave Sol. Venture out beyond the limits of the system where humanity was born and seek a place rich with resources. A place where they can settle without the ever-present crushing fear and dread that any day could be their last. You may wonder why if the stations have years left, and truth be told it is because of the debris that is being hurled about the system. More than ever the Earth is a magnet for chunks of ice and rock now that the Moon is in the state that it is. At one time it largely protected the Earth but those days are long gone.

Gladius is headed for a collection of asteroids near one of the Inner Ring’s borders. It’s a relatively, in terms of the age of the system, new addition and thus far the faction has managed to not only keep it safe and secret but refrain from mining it in any manner. However, with the danger to the stations as high as it is and this a potential gold mine of resources at their fingertips, the Council of Three, who lead the Inner Ring, have decided that the time is now to survey and then strip the asteroids for all they are worth.

The mining vessel is like all other factions ships in the system, a hodgepodge Frankenstein assembly formed from many of the spare components left when the bulk of humanity departed without a care for who and how many were being left behind.

The long bulky hull of Gladius with its mismatched panels and strange bumps and grooves which end mid flow houses a crew of four. It’s one of the smaller strip mining vessels but because of that it has greater manoeuvrability and speed capabilities when compared to many other faction starships. As a result it is capable of outrunning the vast majority of any potential invading factions ships which may have resulted to piracy, not unusual, in hopes of procuring resources to keep themselves ticking over, if only for a little while longer. Unsurprisingly, the remaining humans in Sol are even more belligerent and determined to survivor than the haves and that was back when humanity had been one species in one solar system.

Eduardo Percin one of the crew of Gladius strides onto the ‘bridge.’ By his approximation it is a mismatched term as the ‘bridge’ of the strip mining vessel is little more than a converted cargo section that has had three different console units bolted and welded to its decking in a vaguely triangular pattern.

Eduardo digs his shoulder into what once would have been a pressure door opening. That would have been back before Gladius was cobbled together. When it had been a series of spare parts and abandoned, partially damaged ships left by the haves when they went on their mass exodus to wherever it is they are now. Everyone in Sol knows they are out there, the rest of humanity. They receive a wayward burst of comms every now and then as a reminder. It isn’t intended for them, hence the wayward. Sadly, the factions are incapable of responding to such transmission bursts for their technology is limited. Not that contacting the rest of humanity, no doubt living in idyllic bliss, would ever respond to such things if any of the factions managed to spend a burst back the way it came. After all, they left those still in Sol to their fates. They possibly expect that dark chapter of abandonment has been lost and that everyone in Sol is long dead. If only they knew.

Eduardo runs his tongue over his teeth as he stands propped up by the pressure opening. His hazel eyes dart from their ‘Captain’ Russ Hefferman, who is sat at the left corner of the three console units, while their navigator come engineer, Kaz Soderman, sits in the seat to Russ’ right. The final seat, what was at one time intended to be either the captain’s or gunnery position is empty. It serves as neither on Gladius for the mining vessel has no offensive capabilities. That is one of the reasons that it is capable of outrunning most other starships in Sol. Armaments are heavy after all, or at least they are in Sol. The weapons are old and require spatial shells. Each shell weighs a hundred and ninety three kilograms. To make matters worse each spatial cannon requires four shells be loaded in each, as the cannons come in pairs, prior to them permitting a potential firing solution from being calculated. That amount of weight soon adds up and puts serious strain on the typically underpowered engines found on all faction starships. Except in the case of Gladius that is; it runs six Prowler V2 Supersled propulsion units arranged in a hexagonal shape to provide best thrust and manoeuvrability efficiencies.

“Why don’t you take up a pew Ed?” Russ announces without taking his eyes off the console readout before him as he pilots Gladius. After all, the console is only item that gives him any indication of proximity to the Refuge Belt. It’s the name Inner Ring has given to this collection of space rocks. Eduardo thinks it’s a dumb name that gives too much away. Yet, who is he to argue with the factions ‘scientists.’ They are no such thing in reality, but they are the closest any faction has any hope of ever having to the real thing.

Unsurprisingly, actual scientists left with the bulk. These men and women are simply intelligent, well-informed individuals who were not considered worthwhile to humanity to take along on the voyage. Sounds familiar and why the factions hate the bulk, the haves, or whatever other name those that are no longer in Sol are given by those stuck here. It might have been forty years, longer than Eduardo or any of the crew he serves with has walked this vaccum, but that doesn’t mean the betrayals have been forgotten. Humans have long memories, which they pass from one generation to the next.

Eduardo would not feel right to call those that raised him his parents as they were not. They were careers, nothing more. He had no biological ties to them and they did change a few times during his youth. You see humans in the Inner Ring are no longer born, they are bred. Everyone since the exodus has come from test tubes. It’s an easier way to control and manipulate the limited genetic strains available to birth citizens of necessity. Thankfully there are some benefits to having been engineered. These include prolonged life, reduced aging and a greater tolerance of oxygen deficient environments. If the Inner Ring could do more they would but resources are forever the issue.

“Rather stand.” The gruff voice of Eduardo rumbles as he remains in place, having made no attempt to move a muscle.

“Always the martyr.” Russ mutters under his breath, which results in a chuckle spluttering from Kaz’s cracked lips. Her chuckle soon morphs into a sickening cough. She’s ill. It’s not unusual for miners and as miners make up the bulk of most factions’ citizens that means most are sick. Eduardo doesn’t know what Kaz is suffering from, other than it isn’t likely to be contagious. By the sounds of things it’s Miner Lung. Eduardo doesn’t know the exact cause of it other than to say it likely has something to do with a lack of proper safety protocols. After all, there are no breather masks to filter particles when they’re cutting minerals on-ship, so you can guess where some of those particles go. That’s right, down the throat and into the lungs. Imagine what tiny, razor sharp shards of rocks and metal will do to a person’s insides. Imagined it? Well now times that by your worst nightmare and you may be approaching the reality of just one of the potential causes of the Miner Lung affliction. Eduardo has seen a few people in the final stages of the…disease. He doesn’t know if that is what it should be called, but it’s what he has settled on. Every time these thoughts run through his head he reassesses if it should be a disease and each time he concludes that the term will do. It might not be correct but it works, at least in his mind, well enough.

“Kaz, you really need to get that checked out.” Janine, the last member of Gladius’ crew, says with genuine concern as she strides onto the ‘bridge.’ Janine Vespers role is less defined than Russ’ or Kaz’s. Like Eduardo, Janine is a miner. She has no other pretty suffixes like Captain or Engineer but she is almost certainly the smartest of the four of them. Why she isn’t ‘Captain’ of this vessel or any other Eduardo cannot make out. In fact, she might be the smartest person Eduardo has ever met in all his years in the void and while serving on strip miners.

Gladius is Eduardo’s seventh posting. It’s the result of a series of sort-of promotions. At least the hierarchy of Inner Ring would call them promotions. Eduardo would call them sentences. He knows full well they expect him to die out here in the cold depths of space gathering resources for the citizens back on the stations, and he accepts it. There is no malice present. That is reserved for the haves and the other factions. Mainly the haves that abandoned this small section of humanity at its time of greatest need. Then again, had they not he would not have been bred. A fleeting smirk appears across his face. No one catches it. Kaz and Russ are too busy with the consoles, while Janine is frantically pacing back and forth. No one offers her a seat, what a surprise. Eduardo resists the urge to roll his eyes. He’s been on Gladius eight months and in that time the only constant has been Janine. Russ and Kaz are newer additions and that is why it makes even less sense that Janine had not been made Captain of the ship. The previous Captain of Gladius lost the lower half of his left leg in an accident. It wasn’t even while mining. He was on station when it happened. Eduardo hasn’t been able to get the full details. In fact, accident is about the sum total of what he’s been able to ascertain. That still makes Eduardo think that Bennett might not have gone the way that’s been claimed. It could be he was a spy. It wouldn’t be the first time, or the last. What factions he might have been with however, Eduardo hasn’t the foggiest. Damn, I’ve been around Russ too long, he thinks moments prior to rolling his eyes in frustration.

Suddenly, the strip mining vessel banks sharply. A rookie might get thrown off their feet in the limited gravity aboard Gladius but Eduardo is no rookie. He knows how to balance his weight and six foot two inch height so that he isn’t flung forward toward the flat boring wall that is at the head of the ‘bridge.’ Gladius has no viewport or screen. That is why Russ and Kaz are focused so intently on the units before them. Why it takes both of them Eduardo will never understand, but at least the green haired Janine has stopped pacing back and forth. She is always like this before they deploy. Bennett had said it was a nervous tick probably due to something that happened earlier in her life that she never truly faced. Eduardo isn’t sure he believes that but as none of them are the sharing type, it’s unlikely he nor Kaz and Russ will ever find out. Eduardo shrugs; Janine catches it and forces a smile. Janine thinks his shrug is in response to the sharp change of direction, as if to say that was nothing. In reality it was Eduardo accepting that he and the crew he serves with will never be friends. He’s nonplussed to be frank. At the end of the day, any one of them, he is here to do a job, a very important job. Friends are a luxury and not one many of the Inner Ring citizens feel there is much point in indulging in when lives are as fleeting as they are. Loss is common, a daily occurrence, and so making friends or any sort of connection really seems… foolish. That is Eduardo’s opinion on the matter.

“Brace for insertion.” Russ exclaims louder than the blond haired man really needs to. His overalls flap about due to being several sizes larger than is necessary for his frame. It’s a far cry from Eduardo’s which are too tight. That is to be expected when you are clad in the same threads as when you first started mining well over a decade ago. It might even be a decade and a half at this point. Eduardo isn’t sure. He doesn’t keep track of his age and the custom of birthdays is long dead, at least in Sol and the Inner Ring faction anyway.

Gladius judders. Anyone unfamiliar with the starship might think it is in the process of shaking itself back into parts. It would take a great deal more than the power of the six engines to result in that.

Ninety seconds later Gladius is still, not just in terms of the judder but also because anchors cables have been fired down the port and starboards sides and into some of the larger asteroids. The anchors are not in place because these larger space rocks will be surveyed and stripped first. No, the smaller ones will be the initial focus. Surprisingly, the smaller rocks often contain greater densities of minerals and resources compared to their bigger brothers. You might be wondering why. Well it’s simple really. The smaller rocks had at one time been much larger, but over time and having suffered countless collisions they have been broken down to the size they are today, and these smaller rocks didn’t shatter as that is where resources were concentrated. These concentrations having resisted the forces tend to be purer as a result.

The engines burble. The sound can be heard throughout the ship. None of the four crew react. They are all well aware the sound is one of the oddities of Gladius. It shouldn’t make that noise. The engines have already been off for more than a minute but nevertheless the sound happens every time they are cut. Several stations fitters have taken a look, in addition to Kaz, and no one can explain it. Though, all have assured that it is not due to any sort of engine malfunction or potential imminent self-annihilation. Some Inner Ring ships do suffer from such things and as a result precious resources and lives have been lost. Thankfully, those catastrophes are a rarity, with most of the afflicted vessels having been salvaged to fix more reliable ‘classifications.’

“Suit and boot, we have resources to loot.” Russ announces as they all head off the bridge and to the cargo section. It’s funny because Gladius is really formed from three cargo sections. Well, two and a half really. The half section is the ‘bridge,’ while the other full section is the crew quarters. If it can really be called a crew section, that is. Most of the time the crew area doubles as extra hold space. This forces the crew to sleep on their bunks in whatever space they can manage to clear. That is not to say they do not run the risk of potentially being smacked in the head while they attempt to sleep, or while the vessel performs its predetermined return voyage. Inner Ring starships don’t have navigation modules but are pre-installed with vectors for the stations they call home. Essentially, they auto-pilot themselves back to base and permit very little interference from the onboard crew, save for emergency avoidance measures, meant for use against opposing faction starships that might be pursuit, and speed adjustments.

Eduardo again rolls his eyes. He can’t stand some of the statements that come out of Russ’ mouth and if he were not captain the black haired miner thinks he would have flushed his superior out of an airlock, even if it claimed his life in the process, long ago. Still, he keeps quiet as he and the others head to the very rear of Gladius where they will don their suits and then decompress, once the tanks have been activated to save the stale forever recycling air they breathe, prior to stepping out.

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