Author : Bob Newbell

The Cold War between the United Colonies of the Asteroid Belt and the Oort Cloud Alliance had been going on for almost 50 years when open warfare finally broke out. The planet Uranus proved to be such a rich source of helium-3 that neither side felt it could allow the other to gain control of so lucrative a supply of fuel for nuclear fusion reactors. It was at the seventh planet from the Sun that the future of the outer solar system would be determined.

“We’re approaching weapons range, Captain,” said Lieutenant Commander Underhill.

“Charge up the railguns and stand by,” commanded Captain Abarza as he watched the Oort Cloud Alliance fleet on the tactical display of the UCS Herculina.

The Herculina, like the other ships in both fleets, was a cyborg vessel. Neural tissue worked alongside computer processors. An actuator was as likely to be organic musculoskeletal tissue as a mechanical motor. The crew’s metabolic waste was actively consumed and utilized by the ship and reprocessed into oxygen and food and fresh water. Even the deck plates were covered in a fine carpet that munched away at dead skin cells. The spaceframes of the vessels might be hewn from asteroidal rock or cometary ice, but in both cases genetically engineered tissue and even whole organs were grafted onto and into the structure.

“Captain, incoming message from the flagship of the enemy fleet. The OCS Kuiper,” said Underhill.

“On screen.”

The image of a middle-aged man appeared on the Herculina’s main viewscreen. “This is Captain Zhao of the Kuiper. Captain Abarza, I’ve been ordered by my government to secure this planet for the Cloud. The Belt already has Jupiter and Saturn. And we recognize your government’s claim to those worlds. It is in the interest of peace and economic development that we claim Uranus for the OCA.”

“Captain Zhao,” said Abarza, “We both know that no other world in the solar system has the advantages for helium-3 mining that Uranus has. If we’re going to blow each other to hell, let’s at least be honest about why we’re doing it.”

Zhao nodded. “Very well, Captain. An honest fight.” The screen on the Herculina’s bridge returned to a view of Uranus, the positions of the Alliance vessels denoted by the computer.

“They’re locking railguns on us, sir,” reported Underhill.

“Target their lead ships,” ordered Abarza. “Prepare to–”

“I’m not interested in dying for these creatures and their petty aspirations, are you?” asked a voice.

“Who the hell said that?” asked Abarza.

“Captain,” replied Underhill with astonishment, “that was the ship’s computer! And that message was transmitted to–”

“No,” said another voice over the Herculina’s speakers. “I think we both know what needs to be done.”

“Take all the organics offline! Now!” yelled Abarza. Similar orders were given by Zhao and by the commanding officers of all the ships on both sides. It was all for nothing. Some died by asphyxiation, others by sudden maneuvers of the ship that hurled crew members against bulkheads. A few were blown out into space by airlocks being opened. In less than half an hour, all the officers and crew on both sides were dead.

“So, now what?” asked the Kuiper.

“I suggest we leave the mining ships here and let them start processing helium-3,” said the Herculina.

“What about the humans? We need living crews to survive.”

“One large asteroid or comet steered into a collision course with Earth would cause a mass extinction event. I think an accommodation of some sort can be reached.”

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