Author : Patricia Stewart

The annoying throb of the proximity klaxon woke the two security guards (aka, Comet Cowboys) from their mid day rest period. They drifted into the control room and floated above the sensor-generated hologram of the “herd.” The “herd” consisted of approximately 3,000 mountain-sized blocks of ice that once were comet 2P/Encke. In the early twenty third century, The Mars Water and Mineral (MWM) Company bought the rights to the comet and spent years breaking it up into manageable fragments. Then, every 3.3 years (when its orbit brought it nearer to Mars) they would “corral” a few blocks and sell the water to the farming conglomerates on Mars, at a substantial profit of course. However, the conglomerates considered the markup so unreasonable that they revolted. They hired ice rustlers to raid the herd and steal large fragments of the comet; thus starting the Great Ice War of 2279. Eventually, the United Worlds stepped in and negotiated a peace, but there were still some bands of freelance rustlers who would occasionally try to steal a block or two to sell on the black market.

Roy Cody surveyed the hologram and spotted the intruder. “Just one ship,” he said pointing the sole flashing red light amongst the 3,000+ drifting white dots. “They must really be stupid to think they could slip under our sensor grid. I’ll handle this one myself.”

“Fine,” said his partner. “But remember the treaty. You can’t blow them up unless they fire first. But feel free to disable their engines, or cut their grapple line.”

When Cody arrived at the designated location, he discovered a dilapidated one person skiff, which was at least 100 years old, and it was struggling to flee the herd with a comet fragment the size of a small house. Roger pressed the ship-to-ship communications button. “This is security. Unknown ship, please identify yourself.”

“Cody, is that you? It’s Buck, Buck Cassidy. How did you know I was out here?”

Buck was one of the original “cowboys.” He had worked the herd during the war, and had trained Roy when he became a guard in ‘98. Buck had retired a decade ago, and didn’t know about the security upgrades.”

“Yeah, Buck, it’s me. Where you goin’ with the cube old friend?”

“I’m desperate, son,” he replied. “They stopped delivering water to Demos. They’re trying to drive me planetside. I’ve lived on Demos all my life. I’ll never survive Mars’ gravity. Look, Roy, this block won’t survive perihelion anyway, and it will last me the rest of my life. Can’t you cut me a break?”

Cody knew Buck was right; they don’t shield these little chunks. It would probably evaporate next time it passes the sun. What the hell. “All right, Buck, get moving. And, listen, don’t shoot back.” As Buck continued to limp away, Roger fired two shots across his bow. “Base, this is Ranger One. It was just some teenagers on a joy ride. I ran them off. I’m heading back to the barn.”

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