Author : Sam Clough, Staff Writer
“Elass, check your drones. I think they’re goofing off.”
“Thanks, Laurie. They’re on target now.”
The fleet was deep in the ‘gravel’ region of the asteroid belt. Elass was dragging in the larger chunks for processing, Laurie was filtering the gravel, looking for chunks of dirty ice and pure metals. Red was sitting ten clicks out, on overwatch. When the fleet had set up shop, they’d deployed a small field-generator to hold the proceeds of their rockmunching. It was maybe two-thirds full of chunks of ice and mineral-rich rocks.
Red was bored. Whilst the miners were at least actively involved in their task, all Red had to do was watch the stash and look for intruders. The company stipulated that there had to be at least one combat craft with every mining op, after the spate of Free Rhean attacks had taken out maybe half the fleet. That was two years before Red had signed up: ‘overwatch’ had sounded so exciting at the time. He’d escorted dozens of mining operations now, mostly with Elass and Laurie, but sometimes with other pairs.
“Ejecting slag, watch yourselves.” Laurie transmitted.
With a little puff of dust, a chunk of compacted wasterock fired out from the midsection of Laurie’s vessel, the ‘Grave Robber’. The projectile held coherence for twenty kilometres or so, then slowly disintegrated into dust. There were a half-dozen plumes of finely-divided dust diffusing ‘above’ the plane of the belt.
Red watched the projectile as it broke up.
The dust moved oddly. Like something was pushing through it.
With motions born of long practice in virtuals, Red started actively pinging the area and accelerated towards the dust-cloud and the covert ops pilot that had just made such a silly mistake. His sensors were betraying him, the dust interfering with the absolute ranging. Half a dozen half-contacts were lurking in the dust plumes. Red warmed up the missile launcher, and powered onwards.
Elass cursed as one of his drones stopped responding. Cheap links occasionally meant that they went dead in space, and needed to be jumpstarted. Hopefully, that’s all it was – sometimes, their proximity sensors just refused to work, and they ended up smeared all over the outside of a rock. Lousy good-for-nothing corporation refused to pay for decent equipment, then acted all surprised when you came back with half your complement acting up. His rambling train of thought was interrupted by the beeping of the ‘communication request’ alert above his head. It was the hauler – the box-with-engines that dragged the ice and rock back to a an orbital refinery.
He keyed the local area radio.
“…’sup?” The voice coming through the radio was unfamiliar, not the usual hauler pilot.
“Not much. You’re early, though. Squeeze your auth key to me and I’ll unlock the field.”
“Who do you think I am?”
“Moron.” The not-hauler approached the the storage field. The entire front of the bulky craft folded. It smoothly enveloped the storage field like a snake choking down an egg. Laurie hit the all-fleet-alert. Elass panicked, and pushed every thruster he had to max. They flared, and burnt out. Communications from Elass were a garbled mess of swear of words before Laurie broke the line.
The thief twisted his ship into an escape vector. A dozen missiles streaked from launchers mounted onto his outer hull. They automatically locked in on the hapless miners.
Red grimaced, and muttered to himself.
“I’m so fired for this.”