We will vehemently defend our progress from barbarian to Outer Imperial as evidence of the ultimate advancement of our species. Yet, for all our progress, we are still imprisoned within this system by that which lies beyond it. God is an overprotective parent – it will be longer still before we are allowed to cross the road and pass into the rest of the galaxy. But why go looking for danger past the heliosphere? There’s enough of it in our own backyard.
–Letters to the Outer Imperial Extra-Solar Exploratory Commission, Keego Ruul, CEO, Ulysses Exploration, Inc.
Altha Bennet was a hard man.
In a system filling with human life, Bennet was among a exclusive club of scavengers who were fearless, or psychotic, enough to work the edges of the Oort Cloud for resources. In that line of work, that far from the sun, that exposed to the deadly pitfalls of the wilderness at the edge of the Sun’s influence, time and wealth meant nothing. To be a human at the edge of humanity and to abandon the restrictions of the pursuit of fortune and glory took a hearty soul – and a hard man.
Bennet and those like him were called “Icemen” by the Outer Imperials who dared not venture past Neptune. Aside from the fact that most of the Solar system beyond the planets was a collection of icy rocks, to scavenge so close to the edge of the heliosphere took a special ship. Cosmic rays, originating outside the Solar system, found less opposition from the effects of the Sun’s path through the galaxy, and to counter the increased penetration of that dangerous phenomenon, Bennet’s ilk had devised special iceships – small, FET propulsion vessels with specialized layering of liquid water and liquid hydrogen shielding. The ships were swift and easily maneuverable, and were often custom fitted with laser-based resource extraction tools, but given the size of the frontier of the Solar system and the typical distance between object, their explorations were best restricted to atypical small areas of space with high densities of Oort cloud objects. These custom ships with their liquid shielding reduced the effects of cosmic rays and other extrasolar anomalous radiation. The fact that the shielding could easily be compromised by solid impact made the life expectancy of icemen very low, and also made the possibilities of meeting one along the frontier very rare.
Bennet had laid claim to a lovely little spread of ice and spent most of his days jumping from rock to rock, mining what he could and stockpiling it on a small asteroid that served as his base. The asteroid was not native to Bennet’s spread and had been piloted there by a previous iceman decades previous.
Every five years, a Ulysses ship would come by Bennet’s claim and exchange goods for whatever resources Bennet could find.
Two years had passed since the last Ulysses ship, and Bennet found himself running out of rocks with usable materials to mine earlier than he anticipated. Without methane and other resources to trade with Ulysses, he couldn’t get the highly specialized propellants he needed to operate his FETs efficiently. To save what resources he did have, Bennet had resorted to using a portion of his mined resources to power his secondary and tertiary ion and combustion thrusters.
He needed to move on, but he didn’t have near enough resources to move his asteroid to a different claim. Each day, as he watched his resources dwindle, he ranged further outward from his base, hoping to find one of the rare planetoids that were peppered throughout the frontier.
Like he often did, Bennet suddenly lurched awake at the sound of his scanner picking up a non-classified object entering range.
Wiping away the stream of saliva running through his heavy beard, Bennet leaned forward and examined the data being displayed on his screens.
“Shit …” he croaked – the first word he’d spoken in weeks.
Blinking his eyes, he checked the screen again.
“Shit!” he exclaimed and leaped from his captain’s chair. Maneuvering through unopened cartons of foodstuffs littered through the cockpit pit, Bennet forced his way to the mineral extraction controls. Hastily, he switched on the main laser controls and waited for the system to boot.
A few feet away from him, a small light blinked on his communications console, indicating an incoming transmission was being received. It had been blinking for one hundred and thirty-three hours without notice.
Leaping from the extraction controls, he returned to the scanner and reread the trajectory data on the incoming rock. It was less than a yard in diameter, but it was moving too fast to avoid. Bennet had to make a precise hit with the laser, or the rock would penetrate the liquid shielding of his ship. His nanofield could repair hull damage to the outside nearly instantly, but if the rock penetrated through the inner water shield, he could be faced with ship full of water.
An audio signal indicated the laser was primed and about to fire, but Bennet had forgotten to activate the automatic targeting controls. To his horror, the laser fired wildly and missed the rock.
Before Bennet could reach the extraction console and readjust the laser, the rock struck the cargo section of the ship.
Security systems instantly registered the impact and shut down most non-essential systems within the ship. The nanofield did its work and quickly sealed the breach before catastrophic failure of the hull could occur.
Bennet was cast into darkness momentarily before flashing emergency illumination kicked on. Stumbling over the clutter in the cockpit he worked his way over to the door separating the cockpit from the rest of the ship.
“Water shield leak detected,” the ship’s computer informed.
Ripping off the panel to the manual door controls, Bennet released the crank and began turning it desperately to get the door’s shut.
From deep within the ship, a roaring sound grew in intensity.
“Water shield leak detected,” the ship reiterated.
The iceship groaned as the distribution of the water shifted the balance of mass.
“Safety protocols offline. Unable to seal cargo area.”
Bennet’s arms ignited with pain, but he turned the crank faster. The thick double doors had only closed half of the distance.
“Safety protocols offline. Unable to seal life support section.”
Bennet was screaming. He couldn’t let himself perish in a ship full of water. To drown in space would be the ultimate insult – the evolution of explorer from seafarer to spacefarer ending in the embrace of a final, improbable, watery grave.
“Artificial gravity systems offline.”
Bennet felt himself loosing his balance as the artificial gravity disappeared. Wedging himself against the wall and door jamb, he continued his desperate attempt to save himself.
Globules of water started to drift through the inches-wide gap left between the closing doors. Bennet’s arms were losing feeling.
Just as the doors clicked home, the wall of water slammed against them. A few sprays of water erupted from the middle of the doors, but the magnetized seal activated and completely cut off the leaks.
Bennet breathed deeply and held his aching arms against his body. Behind him, an explosion registered on the scanner and an alarm began to sound. Fearing he’d suffered more damage, Bennet ran back to his console and observed a strange reading. The explosion had come from outside the ship, a good distance away. Switching to external video, he perused the area the explosion had occurred in.
To his surprise he saw a small flotilla of ships, hanging in space. One of them had been hit by his errant laser and was drifting away from the rest, its hull breached and venting gas.
“Open all frequencies,” Bennet said aloud.
“Communications damaged,” the computer replied.
“Initiate pod separation and engage ion thruster startup,” Bennet commanded.
With a loud thump, the cockpit separated from the cargo portion of the iceship and moved away from it. The ion thrusters ignited and the portion on Bennet’s ship that was left functioning approached the mysterious flotilla.
Within an hour, Bennet had pulled up next to one of the ships and docked with it. He recognized the ship as a modified cruiser often used by the Outer Imperial Fleet for deep space maneuvers. The last time he had seen one was in an attack on a rebel comet-raider gang who had amassed a fleet of a hundred mining ships. The cruiser had vaporized them in less than fifteen minutes.
Donning his virosuit, Bennet passed over to the large cruiser and explored its contents. All systems were offline and unable to be turned on. Moving to the ship’s cargo section using his utility lights, he was surprised by what he saw.
At first he though they were men, but on closer examination he realized they were robot soldiers, all standing at attention, row upon row, hundreds of them.
The sight was disturbing and Bennet felt sweat moisten the inside of his suit. All the robotic units were silent and apparently inactive. Each one was carrying advanced assault weaponry.
Most disturbing of all was the upward-pointing arrow logo of the Ulysses Group stenciled on their chests.
Before he could exit the cargo area to return to his iceship and flee the area, one of the units activated and vaporized the iceman.
The weapons systems of the cruiser switched on shortly after and blew Bennet’s ship from its docked position along side. The cruiser then fired upon the rear section of Bennet’s iceship still hanging a distance away.
As the remnants of the iceman’s ship dispersed, the Ulysses cruiser shut down again.
The flotilla settled again into darkness, into silence, to wait.