Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Canterbury Tales: The Miner's Tale



Here’s a brand new tale from Luke Bellmason which will be part of the next volume of The Canterbury Tales. Volume II won’t be out until later this year, but for now we can get a taste of it. And I'm flattered by the mention. You'll see what I mean as you read it. 
Basic RGB
Most people think it’s an easy way to make money, but asteroid mining is all about patience. Most people get bored after two weeks and give up, but not me.
The regular, low beat of the scanner, its rhythm guiding you to your target. The perfect tuning when you got the cutting cycle of the laser and the tractor beam at exactly the right range; it was like playing an instrument. It was relaxing.
When things were working at their best, they just sounded right. You know, harmonious. When you’d worked the same field for twenty-five years, like I had, you could almost feel your way around without looking. I danced with the rocks. I played their music.
It took something like the sound of the proximity alarm to bring me out of my reverie. The rapid, shrill, piercing siren instantly quickened my heart-rate and jolted me wide awake.
We always mined with a security ship and that day it was Oni. Both Dobbs and Trabe were off hauling the ore I’d mined back to the station. I looked for Oni before I looked for the intruder that’d triggered the alarm. She was sat on the other side of the field.

“Oni, we got a bug, incoming!” I shouted into the comm. Looked like I was going to have to take this one myself.
I locked off all of the mining processors and as the bug came within range I’d switched over to my forward combat laser. The ‘bug’ began firing off speculative shots. From the attack pattern I figured they probably wanted me to run and leave behind the container I’d been filling, but I wasn’t about to give up thirty minutes work to some taffer who’d never done an honest day’s work in their lives.
I waited for them to close in, then fired off a volley of my own. They broke off, surprised, changing tactics from a straight-in approach to an orbit. Now they were trying to keep themselves outside of my weapon’s range while they tried to whittle down my shields. I quickly intercepted to the point in their orbit I knew they’d be at in twenty seconds.
My mining rig, the Mercury Star, was pretty big but she was also fast and I got myself positioned perfectly. The bug turned in as I’d predicted and I fired everything at them. I struck lucky, punching right through their shields and hitting their control thrusters. Their ship started spiralling inward from its original orbit.
“Flying in circles ain’t such a great idea in an asteroid field, buddy,” I said over the open comm channel, but there was no reply.
I held off firing and instead nudged myself clear of a large chunk of rock which was drifting into the bug’s flight-path. I could see them, still unable to steer their ship and desperately pummelling the asteroid with their lasers in an attempt to break it up, but it was too big.
They slammed into the rock and exploded. There was so much energy from the collision that it split the rock open. The shockwave fragmented the outer crust, revealing a core of a much harder substance. It looked like something I’d seen before, the gleaming silvery surface was unmistakable, but the size was all wrong.
For a moment I stared, knowing what I was looking at, but unable to believe it. I pulled the Mercury Star in closer and flipped my scanner back on. Even when my analyser confirmed it, I couldn’t believe it. “Xendrium” it was saying. It was a naturally occurring alloy which usually only appeared in trace amounts. Sometimes, very rarely, it was found in fist-sized chunks in the middle of large asteroids, but this piece was bigger than my rig, much bigger. This was practically a small moon!
I dared not take my eyes off the ‘roid in case it disappeared. I managed to launch a coded micro-tag into it and locked its tracking signal into the nav computer, in case we lost it. Then I called Oni again.
When she finally showed up I’d extracted a small enough sample with the mining laser to be able to run an on-board analysis. Only when she’d checked out the readings I’d sent her, and called me back with her own conclusion, was I totally sure.
“Rellin! Look at the numbers on this,” she shouted.
“Check the purity,” I replied, “it’s even cleaner than compressed xendrium.”
“Have you looked up the prices?” She asked.
“We better make sure there’s no more bugs on the way in,” I said, “then get every available ship over here to haul this stuff back to the station.”
“This whole chunk’s got to be worth millions!” Said Oni.
“Millions?” I questioned, “try billions! If we can get this thing back to the station, we’re all going to be extremely rich!”
Eventually the whole gang was out there mining and hauling the xendrium, with every kind of rig and transport we had. Even with such a huge team, it took us over twelve hours to get it all in. We worked flat out. We knew that at any moment we could be discovered by more bugs coming into the system, or other miners. Until we got it safely stored in our hangar on the station, the xendrium wasn’t really ours.
I was one of the last ones back, by which time the celebrations were already in full swing. On the giant display board above Oni’s office was our Ceru, our great lord and master Lea Solette. We didn’t own the territory we mined, it belonged to Ceru Solette, but she couldn’t mine it all herself. So as long as we paid the rent each year and defended the proclate from anyone trying to take it over, whatever we found was ours. Still, the Ceru always kept a close eye on her territory, and us.
When I walked in Solette was giving some speech congratulating Oni and her gang on our find,
“May you be assured that your tireless efforts in maintaining the proclate are appreciated and that such a great, momentous day as this will be remembered for generations to come, not only by our descendants, but by those of our rivals,” she blathered on. Everyone was ignoring the speech anyway, as their attention was on the electronic ticker just above the display reading off the xendrium unit price. It was slowly creeping up. Demand for this stuff was very high and it looked like nobody outside of our company had gotten a whiff of our find.
Dobbs bumped into me, swinging a bottle of cheap beer around and singing.
“Come on Rell, you’re not drinking!” He said. I grabbed his arm and tried to talk to him.
“We should wait it out,” I said, “sell the stockpile off slowly, so as not to attract attention.” I wanted to hear Dobb’s opinion on the matter, but anything he may have said was drowned out by the noise of the cheering and the booming voice of our Ceru on the screen.
“And here he is! The hero of the hour, our very own Randall Stone,” she said, not realising that the laughter coming from the gang was at her getting my name wrong. The Ceru tried to join in with her own fake laugh, as though she was one of us.
I was lifted up onto the shoulders of the biggest miner and carried around the hangar to rapturous applause and cheers, but I didn’t feel like celebrating, instead I was worrying. I knew that such a vast quantity of a single commodity hitting the local markets could destabilise them. We could cause a crash, but it was no good, everyone was caught up in the hysteria. They could see how much money we were sitting on and they wanted it all now. Once Oni had worked out everyone’s share, she dumped the whole xendrium pile in one go and watched it get swallowed up by the trading computers within microseconds.
The sale fetched over fifteen billion credits. In accordance with the system we’d all agreed on, people who had worked the longest bringing the haul in, like me, Oni, Trabe and Dobbs, got the biggest share. Latecomers got less, but managed to make enough to retire on. By the end of the night, I was worth over four billion credits.
I’d stayed at the party for about an hour then snuck back to my quarters. I hadn’t slept at all, so as soon as my usual shift time came around I went back aboard my rig, like I had done every day before that.
Outside the station I was greeted by a fleet of press ships, all bombarding me with messages and requests for interviews. I ignored them and muted the radio once I was out of the station control zone.
Only when I was out in the calm of space did I begin daydreaming about all the money I had and how to spend it. I could get one of the new Yseyyri scanners, I thought. I could have the best retrieval beams, custom designed and made to my own specifications. Build the perfect mining ship, then hire mercenaries to protect me so I didn’t have to rely on Oni and the others.
Out of sheer habit, I found myself drifting back to the spot I’d been in yesterday. The press ships were all still behind me, but there were a lot of other ships out here, too.
The asteroid field was a scene of utter chaos. There were hundreds of ships, from tiny shuttlecraft to great merchant cruisers, all desperately trying to avoid the moving rocks and each other. It looked like all the local suppliers must have sold out of mining gear early on, as most of the ships were equipped with completely the wrong lasers. They were firing blindly at the asteroids, not even bothering to scan them. They blasted off chunks randomly, destroying good material along with bad. They mixed up their own catch with their neighbours’, fighting over territory they had no claim to anyway. Some of them didn’t even have scoops or tractors, or anything to collect the unprocessed ore with. Most didn’t seem to care. Apparently they were all looking for xendrium.
I knew that when Oni got out here and saw what was happening, she’d clear them out, but by then this section of the asteroid field would be shredded. It would take weeks for the debris to clear itself, but what worried me was the next phase, the one that would follow this ‘xendrium mania’. When the local pirates got a smell of all this fresh meat, these inexperienced, unprotected ships would be a jackpot for them.
One of the amateur mining ships must have spotted me, as there was another burst of messages on my comms board. A couple of smaller ships cut in front of me, hoping to get a glance of the famous Rellin Suln, but they had no idea how dangerous such manoeuvres were in an asteroid field. I had to dodge them and damn near collided with a couple of rocks spinning towards me as I struggled to maintain control.
There was no chance of me mining here today, or likely for the next week. I couldn’t go back to the station and I couldn’t do my job. The only other place I could go was home.
My folks lived out at the quiet end of the third sub-division of the border worlds, in a system called Reyt-Serril. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere and the only people who ever visited were space traders selling expensive luxuries or the touring troupes of opera singers and performance poets.


I parked the Mercury Star on the residential station platform and registered my DNA sample to obtain a family parking permit. Then, I hopped a shuttle down to Linden City. It’d been over ten years since I’d been back here. I’d sent messages to my parents in that time and they’d visited me on the station once, but I’d guessed that they hadn’t liked it much, since they’d never been back.
After making a few calls I found out that my father was at the theatre, directing his latest play. Mother was on holiday somewhere in the northern hemisphere, but was on speed-call if I needed to speak to her.
I went to the Royal Theatre House and found the stage door. I had to wait outside for my father to come and meet me. He looked flustered. He obviously didn’t know why I was here and knowing him as I did, I knew he was expecting something to be wrong.

“Haven’t you seen the news?” I said. He looked at me blankly.
“What news? Rellin, are you OK?”
“Ok, yes!” I smiled, “much better than ‘OK’.”
He ushered me back inside the theatre and led me along the backstage maze; past lines of dancers and performers, people in extravagant costumes and make-up.

“I’m a big celebrity now, Dad,” I said, “don’t you get the news feeds out here?” My 
dad looked back at me with a puzzled expression.
“I’ve been busy with rehearsals. We open in two weeks and my leading lady has…”
I didn’t catch the last part as we entered through a narrow doorway and clattered down a set of stone steps. To my father, ‘news’ meant opening night at the Futura City Dome or having your play nominated for a Gresley Award.

“Dad, I found the biggest chunk of xendrium in history!” I said. We made a couple more tight turns and ended up at the rehearsal rooms beneath the main auditorium.

“Zen-what?” My father repeated. “That’s not that awful stuff they use to make those weapons with, is it?” I took my holovid out of my pocket and turned it on to the rolling news channels, but I was having trouble getting a signal down here.
We entered the rehearsal hall to see a small group of actors prancing up and down, holding scripts in their hands and reciting the same lines over and over.

“Er, you guys can go to lunch,” my Dad called out. “Early lunch, everybody – meet back here at three.”
They didn’t need telling twice and dispersed rapidly. A couple of them came up to me and asked my father who I was. My father, in his usual manner, explained that I was his son, come to visit him from the Vachir cantons, where, he told them, I’d been touring in my own production of ‘the Argent Guild’. It was obvious they didn’t believe him.

“Dad, why do you have to make stuff up, just tell them who I am,” I said, after the last of them had left the room.

“Come on,” he said, we’ll go and have lunch. I handed him the screen which was now playing a syndicated news channel.
In the rolling news broadcast Trabe was being interviewed. I could hardly recognise him as he was preened and made up for the holocams.

“Look,” I pointed, “he’s one of my guys.”

“Hey, we should go to this new place I’ve found,” my father said, “they do an amazing Ceedmash blend, the chef’s incredible.” He watched Trabe for a few more seconds on the screen as he fumbled around with his coat. “He’s got himself an agent,” he said.
“Really?” I said, doubtfully.
“Yeah, must have. He’ll milk it for all its worth if he’s got any sense. Interviews, story-grid deals, BioSims.”
“Why would he bother with all that, he’s already a billionaire?” I said.
“Oh, just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you should stop making money. Has he got kids?” My dad asked.

“Yes, two,” I said.
“Well, there you go, then. He needs to leave them with a steady income after he’s gone. An agent will sort all that out.”
We walked back up the stairway and followed the same route out.
“So how much have you made?” My father asked. I told him that my cut of the haul came to about 4.2 billion credits. He stopped in his tracks, “Oh my,” he said, then started walking again. “What ever will you do with all that?”
We got out onto the street and I was relieved to see that it was clear of reporters and holographers. In this system at least, nobody knew who I was.
“I know a few productions that could use the money,” he said as we walked. “There’s a producer I know who’s trying to get Blakney’s ‘the Claw and the Eye’ put on in Inverrdo. You could make a good investment there.”
“I hadn’t thought about it. I was thinking maybe I could hire some more people, start my own company,” I said. “I could even afford to buy my own asteroid field or a dead planet and strip mine it.” I said, as though I had really planned these things.
We crossed over a major road and climbed up another leve,l then we were outside the restaurant.
“Why mining?,” he said, with the frustration clear in his voice. It was a question he’d asked me twenty-five years ago when I’d left home to go and do my training. “You know your brother just opened up another infraction office. You could go into partnership with him, there’s a lot of good money in law.
We entered the restaurant and were seated immediately. The place was smart but minimalist. Every wall was mirrored as if to allow its patrons to see how wonderful they looked as they ate. I felt decidedly underdressed. Even though it didn’t look it, you could tell the food was going to be expensive because they had human waiters in place of the usual serving-bots.
“So, you’re going to carry on with the mining?”
“I enjoy it,” I said. “It’s good to know that what I’m doing is useful, vital even. You know without us, there’d be none of this,” I waved my hand in the general direction of everything. My father ignored me and proceeded with the wine order before turning back to me.
“Well, as long as you’re happy,” he said.
I still had a small chunk of xendrium in my pocket. I had kept it as a souvenir with the intention of having it made into something. Something nice, something tasteful. I wrapped my hand around it and ran my thumb over its smooth, cold surface.
“Are you staying over?” My father asked.
“Yes,” I said, “well, maybe, if there’s time. I have a lot of things to do here. I’d like to find a bank, buy a few things. I’ll let you know.” I said.
The food arrived and I ate it without really noticing what it was.
“I can have Carter sent up to your ship to get your things if you want,” he said.
“Oh, no that’s ok. The Star’s a bit of a mess at the moment. I doubt he’d be able to find anything. And I really ought to contact my crew and let them know when I’ll be coming back. I left in rather a hurry I’m afraid,” I added, gulping the wine down a little too quickly.
After we left the restaurant my father returned to the theatre and I found myself roaming the streets where I’d grown up. Every place I passed seemed to hold some long forgotten memory. The Sens-R-Cade where I’d taken my first date, the park where we’d had family picnics and played games in the sun. I roamed the city for most of the afternoon, then somehow found myself at Bradshawes.
I’d walked past this place hundreds of times but had never been in. I knew they were the best shipbuilders on the planet, they built the ships for the Laqu royal family, and I began to wonder what sort of vessel I could have made. But I didn’t want to wait for months while it was designed, built, tested then finally approved. For now I could settle for something off the shelf. The problem wasn’t money, the problem was I didn’t really know what I wanted a ship for.
The salesman approached me and asked if I was interested in anything in particular. I told him I didn’t know and he showed me some of their demonstration displays. After a couple of hours of serious consideration I settled on a modestly sized brigantine. It was big, but not excessive, and it was the largest ship I could get which didn’t require a crew to run it. The design was modular, so I could easily change its function later.
I gave them the chunk of xendrium and had them incorporate it into the instrument panels and commander’s seat, with inlaid star-dots depicting the constellations visible from the Neo-Vega system where I’d found the asteroid. They didn’t ask why I wanted this, they simply noted down my request and told me the ship would take a few hours to fabricate. When the final bill was tallied it came to over twelve million credits. I put my signature on the order and had them deliver it to the station.
I returned to the Mercury Star and found a message from my father saying that he’d arranged some grand dinner back at the house. He’d dragged my brother over from the other side of the planet and had my mother’s vid-screen put at the end of the table.
I wanted to send him a reply, but I kept scrubbing out each first line I wrote. I could have called, but something stopped me opening the channel. I felt bad about not wanting to go to the meal, but I couldn’t face it, and I couldn’t figure out why. Finally I set my nav mode back to Neo-Vega and pulled away from the dock.
As I arrived in the system I hit all the messages that had been chasing me through the lospace bands at sub-light speed. The filtering software sorted through and deleted most of them, but there were two at the top of the list. One was from Oni and the other was from Ceru Lea Solette. They were both marked ‘URGENT: WAR-DEC!’ The declaration of war had arrived just after I’d left.
The message from Oni began,
“Attention All: Ceru Tiabee of the Xequla Proclates has declared war on us. All of you must return to the safety of the station immediately, where you’ll equip your ships for combat and form part of our defence militia. As of now, the following rules are in effect;
1. No travelling solo in system under ANY circumstances!
2. All non-combat ships must report to the station and remain docked for the duration of the war, unless ordered otherwise by me personally.
3. All gang members shall equip a combat ship and report to their section head.
4. Anyone disregarding these orders will be fired upon and destroyed.
5. Anyone caught mining will be dealt with in a similar manner.”
The warnings were pretty stark. I checked my sensors but there were no unidentified ships in system. I considered calling in for an escort to come out and meet me, but I thought I’d be safe enough from here to the station.
I docked, then walked to our offices. Oni sat behind her desk, in front of banks of screens and computer terminals. She didn’t look up.
Hey, Rellin, have you seen these new MX-14s? I’ve ordered a dozen for our fleet. We’ll have them fitted to your new ship in the next few hours.”
“You knew I’d ordered a ship?” I said.
“Everyone’s ordered a ship,” she replied, smugly.
She pulled my file out from near the top of a stack on her desk.
“Your training’s behind. You need another three hours on the sim and four or five of live combat training logged. Shall I put you down for this afternoon?”
“What about Dobbs?” I replied. “He said he’d train me up.” 
She sneered at me. “What about him?” she said.
“Where is he?” I asked, innocently.
“Disappeared,” said Oni. “Bought himself the best cloaking device he could, then left the station. Now nobody can find him.”
“You think maybe he could have been attacked?” I said.
"Hope for his sake he was, ’cause if he’s run away…” she trailed off.
“Run away?”
“Well, I’ve heard a few rumours.” She fixed me with accusing eyes. “In fact, until you walked in through that door I’d assumed you’d run away.”
“I just went home, to see my folks. Get a few things sorted,” I said.
Oni stood up and walked around the front of the desk. Even with her flight boots on, she still only came up to my chest, but I knew she could easily floor me if she had to. I’d seen her physically fight people who’d disagreed with her, or disobeyed her orders, big guys even; miners, engineers, mercs. She didn’t enjoy doing it and usually made sure it was over quickly.
“Don’t you think you’ve all done pretty well out of us over the years? I mean, twenty-five years of mining, making a good living and enjoying all the benefits of our little company?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “And now, when we ask for something in return, what do we get? Complaints, disobedience, betrayal, desertion.”
“Hang on a minute,” I said, “who said anything about desertion?”
“Does any of you want to fight? No. It’s become obvious over the last two days that not one member of this gang will fulfil their duty and fight for this territory. Oh, you’ll fight for yourselves, but not to save this proclate.” Having made her point she returned to her chair behind the desk. “Get a ship, find someone with the guts to fly with you and start patrolling. When the enemy gets here, I want us to be ready.”
I went down to the dock where my new ship had been delivered and called up maintenance. I had the ‘Xendrium Crown‘, as I’d decided to call it, fitted with all the scanning equipment I could get hold of. Enough sensor packs, probes and hywave monitors to find a cloaked ship. I had enough money for the best, but the station didn’t stock everything I wanted and there wasn’t time to have it manufactured.
When I launched, the press ships outside didn’t even register me. I began carefully probing all the wave-bands for Dobb’s signal, trying to find even the slightest trace of his cloak. Then I got lucky for the second time in a week; I found a spike in the local hyspace field density. I studied the monitor for a few minutes trying to figure out what I’d just seen, then I realised it was a mass transfer from the upper dimensions of hyspace into the lower dimensions of lospace. Or, to put it more simply, it was the wake of a ship dropping out of jump. I worked backwards and calculated the mass transfer that had created the spike, like measuring the size of a stone from the ripples it made on a pond. It was exactly right for Dobb’s new ship. I headed towards the spot where he’d dropped into system and hoped I didn’t crash into him.
I set up a private channel that I knew he used and spoke into the silence.
“Dobbs!” I said. A distorted voice came through the speakers, then the smart-ware adapted to the warped signals and it was like he was here in the cabin with me.
“Oni sent you?” he asked
“Where have you been?” I replied.
“I went to the Ortus cloud, to see Ceru Tiabee, try and work out some sort of agreement with him,” he said. “I’ve been through too many wars to want another one. I was simply trying to avoid a lot of, mess.”
“It’s all my fault,” I said. “If I hadn’t found that damn rock.”
“Maybe it’s Oni’s fault. If she’d been there to take out that bug it wouldn’t have hit the asteroid and made us all billionaires.”
“Of all the lousy breaks, eh?” I said.
“Who knows, maybe you’d have found it ten minutes later. Maybe someone else would have found it. Same result. Most of life is random, and consequences are almost always unintended. I wouldn’t worry about having any control over the universe.”
“So what did Tiabee say?” I asked.
“He said ‘he couldn’t allow Ceru Solette to be in control of that much xendrium. The danger of it being used to threaten the surrounding proclates was too great.”
“So we’re going to have a war to keep the peace,” I concluded.
“I’m not going back,” said Dobbs. “Tell Oni whatever you like. That I’m dead or I defected to the other side or I joined a monastary.”
“She’ll give out the order to kill you,” I told him.
“Fine, let her do that, then,” he said.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Anywhere, I have a cloaked ship. I could go into the Expanse, explore the Parshani Belt. Or what was that place you always told me about? That planet you grew up on might be nice,” he said.
“They’ll send bounty hunters after you,” I warned him.
“Yeah, and I’ll send bounty hunters after the bounty hunters, and after Oni and Lea. I’ve got more money than I could ever spend, anyway. I just want to settle down somewhere, retire. What about you?” he asked.
“I hadn’t thought about it,” I said. “Fight, I suppose. With all the new equipment and ships we’ve been able to buy, we stand a pretty good chance of winning this war.”
“Then what?” he said.
“What?” I said back.
“Assuming you win, after the war’s been won? Ceru Solette will have even greater domain and gain more power. Oni might even get to be a Ceru of her own proclate. That’s what she really wanted all this time.”
“If you do go to Reyt-Serril, look for my family,” I said. “When I’m next back there we can meet up. You look after yourself,” I said. “Be careful.”
“Yeah, you, too,” he said, then clicked off the comm channel. Then there was silence.
The channel I’d been speaking to Dobbs on was still open. I could hear a faint fizzing noise, a fading signal, the echo of a voice. I put the frequency through some of the analysers and it located the source. A thin indistinct sound gradually emerged from the aural fog, and it continued to grow louder until I could hear it calling,

“Angelfire six, form up,” then an instant later someone else said, “begin attack pattern four-seven.”

Suddenly the ether was alive with signals. It had to be a fleet of ships moving through the system. I was learning to use these new, highly advanced instruments as I went along. I looked up some of the readings in the quick reference guide and figured out that they were transmitting a blocking signal.
I tried to scan the station but couldn’t get a lock, nor was the planet showing, nor the main star. These were jamming ships, the first wave of an invasion force, I realised. Even a vessel wanting to jump out of the system wouldn’t be able to.
Then six Angelfire assault ships appeared about ten kilometres behind me, between me and the station. They ignored me and carried on towards their target. I doubted even the station had noticed them, but I couldn’t even call and warn them.
I started the Xendrium Crown moving, and pointed it towards the asteroid field. I didn’t need a navigation computer, I simply lined up the same stars with my cockpit window as I had every day before. When I met the edge of the field, I turned in. To most people, an asteroid field looked random, but to me it had a texture. The rocks changed by the minute, but the pattern was always the same.
Most of the amateur miners were still there. I drew in closer to one of them. It was a small ship, firing its puny laser at one of the rocks. It was barely scratching the layer of surface dust on the asteroid, let alone cutting anything away.
I pointed a basic communication laser at their line-of-sight dish and sent a video signal to them,
“Hi!” 


They recognised me instantly.
“Wow, it really is you, isn’t it! Rellin Suln!”

“Yes,” I said. “I used to mine out here,” I said, knowing this to be something of an understatement.


“Yeah, we know. You’re the reason we came out here. We came to make our fortune, just like you did. Can you give us any advice?” they asked.

“Like what?” I said.

“Like, how do we find the big one?”

I laughed. “Don’t ask me about that,” I said, “I just got lucky. In the end, all those years of experience counted for nothing.”

“Just happened to be in the right place at the right time, huh?” the guy said. “Maybe there’s hope for us, then.”
There was some shuffling in the background, then I heard him shout, “Hey, Loran, come up here and say hi to Rellin Suln.” A woman appeared before the camera, holding a baby in her arms and with another child tugging at her to be lifted up to see the screen. This guy had brought his whole family out here. Didn’t he know how dangerous mining was? I started worrying about the attack that was coming. I wanted to warn them, but there was nothing they could do to avoid it, anyway. Hopefully the attackers would concentrate on the station and leave the asteroid field for a few days.

“Maybe there’s something I could do for you,” I said. 

The guy’s mouth hung open expectantly. 

“Look, I made a lot of money out here. I mean a lot! I’d just like to spread it around the mining community.” I explained.

“Wow, really?” He looked at his wife for approval and she seemed to give it. “Sure, ok. You want my deposit number?” He eagerly tapped in his code and it appeared on the screen. It was a safe way to transfer money, since the number accepted deposits only and couldn’t be hacked. I keyed in the account info, then filled in the transfer amount with a four, followed by nine zeros; four billion credits.
I left myself a couple of hundred million, which I figured I could live on for a good while. Then, before I had time to think about it too much, I hit the send button. The funds disappeared into the stranger’s bank account and out of my life.
“I hope it brings you lots of luck,” I said, and closed the channel to a choking, coughing sound.
I pulled the ship away and dove it deeper into the asteroid belt. The sun and stars receded behind me and were blocked out almost completely as I continued towards the middle of the field. I could almost feel the great centre of gravity that sat at the core of the combined mass of all the scattered material. The rocks here were huge. They moved slower and orbited in a regular, stable pattern.
Looking out, all you could see was rock. There were only the smallest gaps back to the outside, which came and went at random with the movement of billions of asteroids. I pulled in closer to one of the larger ones, finding at last what I’d been looking for.
After circling the planetoid a couple of times, I found a fissure big enough to fit the ship inside. I fired off a fixed probe into the outer surface and flew the Crown into the gaping hole. As the ship made its way along the inside of the tunnel, I trailed a fibre connection which led back to the probe. This would be my only link with the rest of the galaxy, for however long I decided to stay in here.
I’d studied rocks like this over the years. They had interiors made of soft, fissile materials or sometimes water-ice, which boiled out once exposed to the vacuum and solar radiation. If they weren’t too big, the caverns inside could be stable structures, leaving enough room to park a ship, maybe even construct some sort of habitable area. Some people chose to live inside these asteroids. Miners knew them as Rock Hermits.
I set the Xendrium Crown down on the flattest area I could find and prepared for a long stay. I’d stocked up enough basic rations for a few years, plus I had one of the latest food synthesisers. My water would come from the fusion reaction system and all that needed to run was a steady supply of rocks. I had everything I needed.
From here, I could listen to the universe without it ever knowing I was here. The radio waves and hywave signals from a trillion star systems would pass through these asteroids, and my computers and analysers would read them all. I would sit and relax to the regular, low beat of the galaxies; their rhythm like music.
And I could mine again. Not rocks, but data.