Scraping Stones

Nearly three hours later and the Gladius crew have finally finished surveying the initial rocks they plan to strip and actually got to the strip mining phase. Eduardo, as the biggest of the group, is a dab hand with the excavator drill and so has it pushed hard against the surface of one of the smaller asteroids. A plume of particles makes it almost impossible for him to see anything around him as he cuts ever deeper into the useless layers of sediment. His hazel eyes are closed. He doesn’t need to look and with all the shaking the drill causes looking, at least for him, often result in nausea. Not the best thing to suffer from when you are locked inside a space suit in the airless void of space. Plus, eyes are pretty useless when you can’t see what the drill is doing because of the particle dust that drifts lazily off from the point of impact. Just as well the drill has a series of audio cues capable of conveying all the information an operator will ever need to be successful then.

A few seconds later and Eduardo gets a low beep. He flips the switch for the drill which gears it into the reverse position. It whirs for maybe ten seconds and then he cuts the power entirely. It’s an old trick he learned to stop the bit getting stuck and then you being forced to let it hang precariously in the weightlessness of space. Especially, as he has seen more than a few times instances where the drills miraculously work themselves free and then drift off. He’s also seen operators try and recover them. It rarely ends well even if there is a tether for both the operator and drill that keeps them anchored to the rock they are working on. You can imagine what a potentially lethal object capable of cutting through thick space rocks might be capable of while on a tether that at its limit extends to roughly head height.

However, Eduardo has avoided a stick, which is why he pulls the drill free, hits the master kill, which most drills do not have even though it is an extra safety measure, and then secures the clip on its stock to the mounting ring directly, instead of relying on the tether. This way the drill, even if it manages to gain a life of its own, will not be capable of caving in his skull and ending his life brutally.

With the drill secure, Eduardo pulls a horizontal beam slicer from around his waist. The tool was originally meant for the repair of starships while on long distance voyages but Inner Ring have no use for it in that capacity and so adapted it by intensifying the cutting capabilities. As a result it is perfect for use in cutting resources so they can be extracted. In theory it could be used to cut through the asteroids. The only problem with doing so would be the significant energy consumption that would be required. That alone makes it uneconomical when compared to the excavator drills, even if the drills are much slower.

Eduardo, as he always does, checks the energy level; the readout in bars shows roughly sixty percent, maybe a little under. Then he does a diagnostic on its failable components. Twenty seconds, during which all the miner can hear is his slow breathing, and at the end of it the diagnostic comes back clean. Eduardo nods to himself and for the first time in minutes can see his surroundings. He pays almost no attention to them. He doesn’t need to. There is nothing of interest to look at. After all, even if he craned his neck around the only things he’d spy are Gladius, more rocks, the anchor cables and the other three members of the crew. He can’t call it his crew. If he were captain he could, not that he wants to be captain. From what he’s seen, as limited as it is, being captain is entirely more hassle than it is worth.

Having positioned the beam slicer in what he feels is the best place he fires a blast. The plasma burst is two seconds long but has the desired effect, which is a deep straight gash into the asteroids, exposed innards. It’s not the core, nowhere near it. It might take Eduardo another hour to reach the core, if it’s worth it. The scan function on the beam slicer will tell him if it is. He hopes so because otherwise this belt might turn out to be a dud and by the sounds of things Inner Ring hierarchy are really putting a lot on deposits such as this one.

Still, that’s irrelevant right now. Eduardo can only mine what is here. He can’t make more resources appear out of the ether. If he could then Inner Ring would have left Sol long ago. Or would they? He isn’t sure. Let’s face it, Sol is all he has ever known, and so if he could materialise resources he would be inclined to remain in system and build a better future.

The black haired miner shakes himself loose, his scruffy hair shaking beneath his visored helmet, because he needs to get his head out of the clouds. Stupid saying he thinks, prior to returning to the task at hand.

Eduardo performs three more cuts until he has a square shape before him. He wishes he had a twin axis slicer, the ones that are capable of swapping between vertical and horizontal orientation. He’s heard they exist. Never seen one with his own two eyes and for a long time thought they were a lie. It strikes him that they still could very well be. It sure would make things easier and drastically cut the risks. Chance would be a fine thing, he thinks before deactivating and stowing the slicer and in place taking hold of an Extractor.

The Extractor is a simple device. There is nothing flashy or impressive about it. It’s pretty old school technology to be honest. It’s a simple grey cylinder with a piston and eye hook at one end and a short thin nozzle at the other. The idea is that the nozzle goes into the resource deposit Eduardo has cut into, the square shape. The eye hook will be what he holds and once in place he will pull back on to extend the cylinder which will create an ‘air’ bubble at the rear of the deposit and thus permit him the ability to extract it. If only it were as simple to perform as it were to explain. Sadly, it is not and why it takes the miner several minutes of finding the perfect penetration point and then a couple more filled with failed attempts at extraction.

Ultimately Eduardo does succeed but the resource deposit is not as rich or dense as he would have expected. He feels deflated but resources are resources, even the small quantities, which is why he shoves it into the return line, a giant concertinaed hose with a just strong enough suction capacity. The hose will transport the deposit back to the dump. The dump being a massive bin into which smaller deposits are dropped prior to them ultimately being sorted and cut. This sorting phase is commonly done during the return voyage to the stations in orbit around the ruins of Earth. After all, there isn’t much else to do with the vessel piloting itself, unless you want to stare at patchwork metal bulkheads and plating feeling your mental state deteriorating, or engage in idle chatter which no one wants to partake in.

Having stowed the Extractor and swapped back to the slicer, Eduardo does a scan. He has to physically move the tool about, fingers kept far from the dual trigger, to perform the survey. Nearly a minute of careful searching later and Eduardo is met with the unfortunate news that there are no more deposits worth his time. He sighs unsurprised by his and the factions’ misfortune.

While he begins the process of gathering his gear to transition to the next small hunk of rock Kaz announces, “Anyone else coming up short here?” Somehow she manages to keep herself from erupting into a cough. Progress, Eduardo thinks so he doesn’t have to be the first to offer a reply.

“When do we not?” Janine replies with a cutting tone of voice that barely manages to rise above the din of her excavator as it continues to clatter and bore. Janine has never been one to waste time on idle chatter without continuing with the work at hand. If only Kaz and Russ were the same. In fact, Russ and Kaz achieve very little on any mining session. Russ, maybe, can be forgiven as he is captain and might have some kind of captainly concerns to ponder over that the rest of them are unaware of, but Kaz, she has no excuse.

“What you saying Kaz? You think someone’s been here already?” Russ blurts the questions which strike Eduardo as curious. Especially, as no one has made any mention of any such thing. At least, they haven’t as far as Eduardo can tell. Unless he’s misunderstanding the conversation they are having, that is. It’s possible. He is definitely the least communicative of the four. He always has been. Not just on Gladius but all the vessels he served on previously too.

“No. Why would I… What?” Kaz sounds about as confused as Eduardo feels. He finds that reassuring as he finishes anchoring himself to a fresh rock and prepares himself for the inevitable kickback the drill will offer upon the untouched surface of this asteroid when he sparks it back into life.

“Is there something you need to tell us Russ?” Janine asks flatly. Her drill is silent now. As a result her voice is much easier to hear but has lost none of its prior hardness. Janine always sounds a little pissed off. She isn’t. That is just her voice. Maybe she could do something about it and its tone, though she is not inclined too. People know better than to mess with her and not just because of her size or some pre-existing reputation.

“No, there is not. Now get back to work. We’re slacking and times a cracking.” Eduardo rolls his eyes at the captains’ statement and then fires his drill. Anymore of the conversation, if it continues, is lost to the black haired miner. He tunes out. Eyes closed again he listens for one of the beeps. All around him are fresh particles.

Before he hears a beep however he gets a feeling. It’s odd and grates against his conscious mind. He can’t place it and sees nothing in his vision, so it can’t be a dream he knows that. He shoves the feeling aside and returns to concentrating for an inevitable sound. Before long he feels something glance his arm. Instinctively his eyes shoot open. It was a touch, no doubt about it. He’s been doing this long enough to know the difference between debris and a living thing coming into contact with his suit. He cuts his drill but has to wait for the particle cloud to clear. It feels like an age before it does and that annoys him a little. However, when the visibility reaches just enough he can safely say he’s alone. There is no one near him. His top lip curls. This feels like some kind of game. Eduardo doesn’t like games. He remembers them being played on him growing up. The other bred children making fun of him and calling him rockhead because he took longer to get things than them. That had ended when he got older. His size put pay to that and not just height either but also his muscle mass. He could’ve made them pay for their mocking but he didn’t. It wasn’t going to change much, though he fantasised about it every now and then back in those days. Those fantasies brought him enough joy even if they weren’t real. And that is what it feels like now, those old days. He debates whether to ask where everyone is but quickly concludes that might come across as though he is letting something get to him and so he lets it go and returns to his work.

Sometime later and Eduardo has managed to find nine deposits in this rock but has had no further interruptions. Be that on his arm or anywhere else for that matter. He’s long since concluded he must have imagined it. His slicer is telling him there is one last worthwhile chunk in this space rock. He doesn’t understand as to where it can be because there is little left of this hunk. It looks like a heavily perforated and gouged rough hewn ball but scans don’t lie. At least he doesn’t think they do. He’s never heard of such things previously and following a finer examination using the slicer he settles on where he thinks this last mass of interest must be residing. He stows his slicer, grabs his drill, seats it, braces and…

“Guys, I’ve found something you’re going to want to see.” Kaz sounds distant. Her voice hollow unlike Eduardo has ever heard from her before.

“What is it Kaz?” Janine queries before Russ gets the chance. Her speed to action reinforces as to why she should be captain and not Russ. To Eduardo it does anyway.

“I… Just get over here. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Eduardo makes no such move. He wants a confirmation first from…

“I’m on my way.” Janine announces.

That is good enough for Eduardo. He downs his drill, making sure to secure it to the mounting point, and then releases his tether to the same mounting point. His suit has limited travel capabilities but his visors HUD is giving him a distance approximation. He can easily make it and so he should be able to in an asteroid belt where once he gets closer to some of the other closer grouped rocks he’ll be able to use them to adjust and aid his velocity. That will reduce the consumption of his suits thrusters’ reserves.

“Janine, you are not the captain here. Get back to your post. You too Eduardo. I’ll investigate. Those are my orders.” Russ commands. His tone suggests he might know more than he is letting on. Regardless, Janine ignores him all the same. She’s been with Gladius longer than any of them and while having been passed over for captaincy does not bother her, it does not mean she is going to change how she operates. Russ should know that and does. She even told him as much to his face. He’d accepted it then when he’d joined, so what’s changed in those months? She doesn’t know but it sure as hell is a tad suspicious.

Eduardo is fully aware Janine is making no attempt to halt her approach and so he makes no such attempt either. Yes its insubordination but Inner Ring rarely enforces the intended punishments for such things, chiefly because they can’t afford too. If circumstances get better or were different maybe things might change, but they are not there yet and don’t seem likely to and so…

Eduardo’s line of thinking trails off only to be replaced by Russ angrily exclaiming, “Eduardo, get your ass back to that rock. It’s not like you to shirk off.”

The only response Russ gets from Eduardo Percin is a grunt. He makes sure his comms are open so that Russ can hear it. Its non-committal but Russ gets the intent of it. It’s a no, without actually saying the word. Very Eduardo, Russ thinks before letting out a long, deep and frustrated sigh of exasperation. He knows things they don’t. If he could share them he would, but he can’t. However, there is good reason as to why he is ordering them both to stay at their posts. Too late, they’ve made up their minds; Russ hears his own voice declare in his head moments prior to him pushing off against a rock so that he can head in the direction of Kaz’s location ping. She has stayed surprisingly silent throughout, which is very unlike Kaz. Russ feels an urge to check on her. “Are you still with us Kaz?” It’s an innocent enough question in Russ’ opinion but rings an alarm bell in Janine’s head. In response Janine pushes harder attempting to speed up and reach Kaz quicker than previously intended.

Kaz’s reply comes a few short seconds later following silence which hung awkwardly in the air. “Ye-yeah, I’m still here.” Eduardo notes that her tone of voice in addition to the hesitation that is present is a far cry from how Kaz sounds normally. Thankfully he’s close now. In fact, somehow he is the closest out of all of them. He isn’t sure how as he was the furthest away and Janine started moving first. It’s like he’s jumped. He hasn’t. It’s not possible to have achieved that. Right then Eduardo breaks through between two fair sized space rocks and into a ‘clearing.’ Eduardo’s jaw drops in response to the sight before him. Shortly after there is a huh exhalation of air which passes his widely parted lips but nothing more than that. That huh from Eduardo is enough for Janine to know that whatever Kaz has found is big, very big.

Almost there now, she thinks, yet cannot explain how Eduardo has beaten her. It matters little as it could be as simple as a HUD glitch or that he managed to get lucky with asteroids that helped him propel himself at a greater speed.

Janine drifts, at speed, into the ‘clearing.’ Her amber coloured eyes go wide as her head re-orientates to take in what she is looking at. Shock is all she can feel, maybe a small amount of betrayal. Russ had to have known about this or he wouldn’t have been so protective. Bastard, Janine thinks without being able to take her eyes off what is before her. Then she hears Russ.

“Holy shit.” Russ cannot believe it. Right before him, now that he too is in the ‘clearing,’ a small roughly oval shaped space barely three metres across any point is a massive asteroid. It’s far bigger than any Russ has ever seen before in his life. It’s the find of the century.

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