The Eldest Shellback

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


The fragments of the sister planet, now Neptune’s moons, were mined differently from the silver mines of Pluto or the ice mines of Mars where Brendan started his career as a exo-geologist. Both of those were the kind of mines fantasy writers put dwarves in. However, on the shattered moon or partner of Neptune, it was just a big pit.

The shattered, uneven pieces of whatever Neptune destroyed had surfaces that were once internal. Things that would normally be dug for in tunnels here could be scooped out. In this case, Proteus had deposits of the rare earths needed to create the silver alloys for superconducting wires needed for the spaceships.

Brendan remembered reading how expensive the early ships were before man started mining the other planets. Several smaller countries had bankrupted themselves trying to afford the fusion drives and circuitry. Only the major powers with their huge GNPs could manage and they staked the claims on planets and asteroids that made them richer. The Unites States and China were really the only two serious powers left.

In many ways, it was analogous to the long war between the English and French in the age of wooden ships. The time spans of travel were similar and few of his fellow miners knew why the long run spaceship were called clippers. Despite the fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the techniques of the line of battle didn’t work out here.

Like most things from that regrettable period where much of the world went insane, it was just an oversimplification of the problem. Two-dimensional combat on a surface of the line of battle did not extrapolate to the three-dimensional battlefield of space. Neither did the silly social policies of following centuries. The pendulum swung and in place of the “let it all hang out” attitude of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, a near Victorian sense of discretion developed. Without the racism and sexism of that was part of the first version.

Brendan was originally a historian before exo-geology called to him. He found it amusing people were more accepted now that everything was in the closet. Hell, they still didn’t know if the miner who saved his life on Pluto was male or female. The assumption was male as it tied into earlier miner legends but since Ivan’s body was never recovered, no one really knew. He suspected Ivan would be amused if he knew he was now a saint or a demi-god.

The ship was nicer than the sensor transformer he had used on Pluto when all that happened. It however was still stark. The control panel and pilots chair in a small cabin, with stainless steel walls and conduit running the power and control lines. Behind him was a small deck area with an airlock and his space suit in its support form. A small bedchamber, really just a tube, and a toilet took up the rest of the available space. Behind the back wall was the fusion unit that supplied drive and power. Stark, sterile, and home.

He stopped his daydreaming and looked again at the excitation bands on the sensor screen. As they hoped, there was another deposit of rare earth metals near the shattered surface of this fragment. He called it in.

***

The dining hall was spartan, as was much of the orbital base. Stark stainless-steel walls painted white, rows of simple tables and chairs, and a serving line like a cafeteria on one end. One wall was mostly oversized monitor, the thin LED display applied like a wallpaper. Older technology, but the company was out here to make money, not spend it.

Despite that, the long arms meant the living quarters had some gravity as the station slowly rotated. That helped. There were drugs that forced the body to compensate for the effects of low or no gravity but they also had side effects. So men did whatever could be done to immunize the dose. People didn’t want to end up like so early explorers who couldn’t tolerate earth gravity anymore and were exiled to space.

Despite or because of all the risk, the pay was good and the miners and engineers were here to make their fortunes. Or to escape their pasts. No one hear cared what you were on Earth: what you could do was what mattered. Less of them than in the tunnel-like mines of Pluto and Mars, but still more than you would imagine. Normally the mood was business-like but today it was festive.

As Brendan walked in, various people waved to him or slapped his back. They were waiting for the official word but his find today was thought to be the largest concentration of rare earths in the Neptunian moons. The assay would determine the details, including the bonus. Even worse case, that was expected to be considerable.

He was going to be a popular guy for a bit.

The good news of the find was damped slightly by the news that one of the transport ships had disappeared. The ship was hauling refined rare earths – no sense in sending raw ores when fusion plants and facilities on location could do the extraction. Cargo was expensive. They lost contact near the edge of the Kuiper belt. No one really knew anything but most were resigned to it happened. Failures occurred and this was a risky business.

Brendan wasn’t sure what he’d do with the money: he already had enough saved from the disaster settlement on Pluto and the other bonuses to retire comfortably. But he found he liked the work and enjoy the company of the miners. There was a sense of excitement, of freedom here that he knew he wouldn’t find back home.

He walked by the little shrine to St Ivan of the Mines and tossed a coin in the bowl. The picture showed St. Ivan was facing off with Santa Muerte. If he ever did go home and return to academia, he could write a paper on the development of folk religions.

***

Mining is very much a Zen lifestyle. The day before, chop wood and carry water. The day after, chop wood and carry water. Instead of enlightenment in the middle, it’s a find.

The assays were good, but that was yesterday. Today Brendan was scouting some moonlets or smaller fragments, looking for fragments that might have come from the same planet. Modelling had suggested the pieces were in certain position based on metal isotopes and hopefully the other half of that deposit could be found.

His ship was a highly specialized one, altered from the standard short distance craft for mining assays. The oversized reactor reduced the living space from standard by about a third. Larger sensor arrays than normal, a specialized source for the excitation ray, mechanical arms to take physical samples, and a charging cable for buoys. Not only did he carry some to make and claim any finds but, with their continue concern about costs, he was also tasked with recharging the ones he past during his trip. Both the inner Asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt had lots of buoys to mark paths etc. Kinda like the shoals and reefs of Earth needed them in the old days.

Brendan was working his way across the suspected fragment, checking to see if he could find another part of the deposit. Using an ionic pulse to blast away the dust, then a very intense xray pulse to excite the elements, he watched the spectral analyzer as it noted the composition.

This tech was too dangerous to use in a mine, but the surface mining was much easier and safer. It always confused him that in the twenty-first century, they disfavored surface mining. Human life was worth less to them than landscape. Actually, it appeared a lot of things were worth more than people.

A strange time, then.  For all their talk about progress and rights, the prevailing thought was more repressive than the any religions it rejected. I always loved history but some parts of it didn’t make sense at all. Mankind goes mad when we’d too concentrated. Thankfully the super-cities are gone, although it would have been better if hadn’t take that plague to do it.

Brendan was manipulating his craft to test a new spot when his communication system flashed an alert for an emergency message. He checked the info code, and per procedure, forward it on to the operations center. The reply was immediate.

“XISZM-1 Signal received.”

“Roger.”

“Brendan, this is Command. It appears to be an escape vessel from the lost transport.”

“Roger, Command. I will abort testing and follow the signal back. It is very weak.”

“Understood. Even looking for it, we can’t detect it here. We have asked the Space Force for assistant. They said they can have a cutter to you in approximately 4 hours.”

“Understood. I will send position info every minute per standard operating procedurce.”

“Okay. Follow the SOP. Be careful. It may have been an accident or perhaps not. We’ve hearing about pirates, or maybe privateers is a better word.”

Brendan started the process of triangulating on the signal. Space law, as well as custom, said you always checked. Space was too unforgiving, too fatal to not prioritize rescues. One company once tried ignoring a signal. A year later they were out of business.

He initiated the triangulation program and the ship became move outward in an increasing spiral. As it did, it constantly aligned on the signal location. When the data collected was suffient for positioning with 100 feet, it flashed routing information onto the main screen.

“Command, position located. It’s close. Suspect batteries are failing. Heading over.”

“Copy. Brendan, follow procedures. It may be accidental or medical…”

“Roger, Command. No being a hero. Stabilize power and maintain until the Trekkies get here.”

“Oh God, Brendan, don’t call them that.”

“Copy. Out.”

Brendan smiled at the response. The notoriously corrupt and, well, stupid media of the twenty-first century had started a rumor that US Space Force emblem was taken from a old movie. That despite evidence the basic design was older and in use when that movie “borrowed” it. However, the name caught the public attention and now like Leatherneck, was associated with the Service. They hated it, but the name stuck.

Brendan guided the ship toward the source of the signal. Withe auto-pilot systems the modern AI ran, it was more directed than actually driving. With all the rocks and debris, it took some time but the escape vessel was much closer than he suspected. The batteries must be nearly drained.

Without the ship’s AI directing him toward it, Brendan would have missed it. The escape vessel was battered and dented. More importantly, it was dark. The flight lights were off and the faint signal coming from it was the only indication there was still power. As he called the station back.

“Found them. Looks pretty rough. Nearly shut down. Gonna attempt to hook up the external power unit.”

“Roger, Brendan. The cutter says three hours plus due to threading through the debris.”

“I don’t think they will last that long. Also, Command?”

Brendan wasn’t sure he was right but still,

“Command, I think the shell shows evidence of shrapnel damage. Might want to tell the cutter to come in hot. I might be wrong but,” Brendan paused and the base operator finished the thought.

“Better safe than shot. Will do. Command out.”

***

Brendan pulled close to the escape vessel and with the AI, matched its speed as closely as he could. He adjusted and fiddled with setting, working with the AI to get everything as prefect as he could. Bouys were stationary and normally when you had to do something like this, the other pilot helped.

In this case, there was no answer from the other ship. The automated distress signal kept playing but queries gave no response. He hoped someone was still alive. Okay, Ivan, if you really did become a saint, get me some help here. I don’t want to rescue a hearse.

Things looked as good as they could be. The match wasn’t prefect but the AI was saying it was within safe limits. If it was wrong, and sometimes it was, a mismatch in paths could destroy the arms or even his ship.

His ship’s mechanical arms reached out and grabbed it. The match wasn’t prefect and his ship jerked as the momentum of the escape vessel yanked his ship off path. The arms worked effectively to attach a tow cable

Brendan sighed with relief. He had contact and set the AI to start redirecting them toward a more open area. Slowly it started towing the unresponsive vessel, gently changing its path.

Brendan looked at the unresponsive craft thro his scanners and saw it was an older model. Not surprising, considering it came from a freighter. However, the AI wasn’t finding a program to hook power in automatically to this model.

Crap. I’m going to have to suit up and hook it in manually. Shouldn’t be much of a problem but…. Ah well, get her done as they say.

***

Brendan suited up and moved into the airlock. While this suit was heavier than the simple escape suits, it didn’t have all the armor and enhancements that either a full military or mechanics suit would. He retained full control of the craft via the link and it was heavy enough to offer extensive protection, but he really wished it had the exo-skeleton of the other suits. Handling the cable was work and they would have made it easier.

He cursed and grumbled a bit as he moved from the airlock to the arm holding the cable. Clambering down the handholds built into the arm, he reached the surface of the other ship. Badly scarred and dented, the evidence of shrapnel was everywhere. Brendan was not ex-military but he had seen ship and mine explosions and this didn’t look like that.

Shit. It looks like I was right. And I’ve got about 2.5 hours before the Trekkie’s cutter gets here.

Brendan wrestled the cable into place, and felt the connection click in. Using his link to the system, he first powered up the line. Lights on the outside of the craft came on and the distress signal increased in intensity.

“XISZM-1! Do you copy? This is USSF Armstrong. Do you copy?”

“Roger, Armstrong.”

“The distress signal just jumped in intensity. We appear to be 2 hours out.”

“Copy. I just hooked the power cable in.  Looks like the hull was shot at.”

“Can you patch us through. We can override system and let you shut the signal down.”

“Roger, Armstrong.”

Brendan initiated the AI system to allow the Armstrong to link thro. Okay, this is simple enough but I had forgotten that the USSF required override codes on ships. I wonder why the want the signal off. Maybe that privateer bit is really more than a rumor. If so, that cold war on Earth may be heating up.

He was just handed over control when the communication link went dead. His AI beeped a warning. Craft incoming. No transponder code broadcast. All communications blocked by static.

He looked up and shadow and lights moved across his field of view.

***

The ship moving in wasn’t huge, but it was sleek and unmarked. Which was odd because the same human instinct that made the pilots in the old wars decorate their planes came into space. His ship had a giant mole painted on it and someone added a St. Ivan medal around the space helmeted creature’s neck. 

This had nothing. That and the communication black out told him all he needed to know. A privateer or pirate. Not that was much difference, as it wasn’t likely a space could survive without help. There was no Port Royal or St. Mary’s Island out here. Any pirate vessel had to be sponsored by someone.

His communication system beep.

“This is the Oldest Shellback. We are going to recover our lost craft. Stand down.”

As the voice stopped, he saw an airlock open and three figures come out. They moved along the ship’s side toward Brendan and the escape vessel.

Brendan responded per SOP.

“This is a USSF sanctioned rescue mission. Under International Law recoveries are the responsibility of the initial contact. You are violating space law.”

The same message repeated.

As Brendan watched, he saw the three figures launch themselves off the pirate ship, as he now considered it. As they did, he could make out they were in military-grade space suits and armed. As they crossed the lights of the other ship, Brendan could clearly see sheaths on the pirates’ sides as well as the holsters for firearms.

Okay. Raiders for sure. I’m not sure what I can do but I’m betting they are not taking captives. Those look like jian, the Chinese military sword. I’m not sure what they have for firearms but anything that would pierce battle armor will cause serious damage used inside the ship. That’s why swords came back in fashion anyway. Doesn’t do any good to win a firefight in a ship and destroy it at the same time.

Shit. I’m not armed with anything…

Wait. One of the early space fantasies had mankind unarmed when they were contacted. They used tool…

Brendan activated his command link to his ship. He gave it a series of commands. The AI responded:

“Message acknowledged. Organic lifeforms detected. Procedure held.”

Brendan replied “Override. Code Omega 476.”

His hands started to shake and he noticed he was panting. He forced himself to breath slowly, four in, hold, four out.

“Override required. Doing so violated Code-“

“COMMAND OVERRIDE. INTIATE SEARCH NOW.”

Yelling at the AI doesn’t make any sense, but damn that thing is annoying. It’s bad enough if this works, I’ll have to live with it.

The AI responded once more. “Program ready. In violation of safety ordinances. Confirm override.”

Brandon took a deep breath. He hoped he’d be able to sleep after this.

“Override.”

A brilliant flash of light was followed by darkness.

***

Brendan awoke, sore and tired. His eyes weren’t working right and the white room was fuzzy and hard to see. His arm was tied to something and there were IVs attached to it. The machines attached to him beeped and whirled. The room smelt of disinfectant.

As he tried to get his bearing, the door opened and a figure in a white coat came in.

“Don’t try and move, Brendan, we got you hooked up to a lot of stuff. You took a lot of radiation.”

“It worked?” Brendan croaked. His voice didn’t want to work for some reason.

“Your throat probably feels like shit. We had you intubated. Here let me get you some water. Just a sip.” The white clad man spooned some water into his mouth. “Easy.”

He continued. “I’m Doctor Ansel, and you are on the USSF Armstrong. I don’t know what made you fire that search pattern with your assay instrumentation, but the combination of iconic pulse and strong x-ray blinded the pirate ship. It crippled the bridge and toasted the crewmen outside. From where they were floating, we guessed they were trying to board you?”

“Yes. Name was a give-away. Neptune famous pirate ship.”

The door opened and a couple of men in the Space Force uniforms came in. The doctor stepped back.

“Captain, our young hero here has just come to.”

“Excellent. Well, sir, by yourself you managed to cripple a pirate ship – the CCP denies any knowledge of them – and take out a half dozen raiders. Whatever made you think the assay probe could be used as a weapon?”

Brendan tried to answer and couldn’t speak. This time the doctor let him sip.

“Old story. From the twentieth century. About a space war.  Under the thruster to break an alien invasion.”

It was surprisingly hard to talk.

“Interesting. I’ll have to get the name from you. Now, we have a proposition for you. The ship you rescue had a nurse and a memory stick with the pirate base coordinates. The bounty and other rewards make you a very rich young man.”

The captain paused and looked Brendan in the eyes.

“However, you’re already a well-off young man and you still worked out here. How about joining us? We need men who can think on their feet and geologists are always useful. You’d have to survive officer candidate school, but…”

Brendan croaked but no words came out.

The doctor answered. “You’ll recover fine, it will just take a while. All you got hit with was the backscatter. The pirates were directly in the beam.”

The captain smiled and said “Let’s us know your decision. You won’t make as much money but then again, you don’t need it.” He turned to the officer behind him and stuck his hand out.

Turning back to Brendan, he laid an ornate jian on the foot of the bed. “We’re keeping the old Naval customs, despite our development from the Air Force under in the twenties. You captured that ship, so you get the captain’s sword. It will look good on your wall whether you join or not.”


Submitted: May 09, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Denton Salle. All rights reserved.

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