Seth Parsons lifted the round glass filled with brandy. This was only the second time in his life he had drunk the golden liquid and after sipping, closed his eyes as the liquid cold fire slid to a warm spot in his belly. After what he had gone through he needed the stuff, expensive as it was.
Seth was not exactly an adventurer. Not, by any means, a hero or leader type. An average guy, he had a small hangar and one ship, his beloved 'Sweet Sue', an Aurora LN he had bought used and fixed up with hard work and most of his money. Running small cargoes in safe zones was not making him wealthy but he got by. Sometimes, well, when life was difficult with as much boredom as work, he had daydreams, of a sort. Fantasies where he flew into danger and won a prize, like the heroes in the novels he enjoyed.
Seth shuddered, thinking, remembering the past few days of his first actual and real 'adventure'. He was casual friends with Frenchy, didn't know his last name and didn't ask. Frenchy was a member of the crew of Blackjack O'Conner's mining ship, Bolida 2 and company called Bolide Mining. Bolide Mining had one mining ship and its crew was somewhat infamous because of an 'incident' occurring in a trip to an Oort Cloud. There had been quite a hullabaloo over this incident involving the UEE and a secret police ship (denied by UEE) and piracy of a billionaire's ship (retracted by owner as a misunderstanding) and some other stuff. Blackjack was eventually cleared but had hauled back out to the frontier and most had forgotten him and his crew (he hoped).
Frenchy had been drinking at Harry's Bar and Seth had been there drinking his usual beer. After a casual greeting Frenchy said he was waiting for a friend but invited Seth to sit a while. After a short time Seth had realized Frenchy was somewhat drunk already. Seth edged the talk around to the so called 'incident'. Frenchy got maudlin about two of his friends who had died but was reticent about details. However, Frenchy did mention that they had found a vein of ore in an asteroid that was the richest he and his crew had ever seen.
Ears perked up, Seth wondered what more he could learn. No, Seth was no miner, but he happened to have a pretty good ore scanner in his hanger he had intended to just sell. Won it in a poker game by drawing the first royal flush (hearts) he had ever seen. Since he was no miner he had saved it for the future. Now it seemed that if he could get Frenchy to, well, divulge the location of this asteroid then maybe...
Although drunk, Frenchy still had his wits about him. "So you seem like you want to go mine at our site huh!".
Seth sputtered, "No, no, well, I mean, you know, I was just curious about you guys mining way out in the cloud!"
Grinning, Frenchy stared at Seth for a moment, then shrugged. "Why not! We ain't ever going back. Don't think Blackjack will care 'ceptin he might think you are just crazy. Still, I didn't think you were a miner."
"I ain't, Frenchy," said Seth, "Got some ore scanners tho and thought maybe, if you guys don't care, I could go run a quick scan and make a few creds selling the spot. That is if you guys ain't goin' back of course."
Frenchy shrugged. "We ain't goin' back that's for sure. But you gotta know that asteroid is one dangerous spot. You take your life in your own hands goin' there so better take some backup!"
Seth knew that Oort Clouds had virtually no traffic or patrolling because of the extreme distance from its system. He also knew that Oort aggregates were particularly bad after billions of years for all those meteors, comets, asteroids and rogue planets gravity fields pulling stuff close together. He knew how to navigate such a mess, however. Slowly and slower. Eagerly he leaned forward and spoke quickly. "Please Frenchy, I am just growing space barnacles on these chicken coop runs! I need this!"
Frenchy stared at him for a minute then nodded. Reaching into a sealed pocket he pulled out a small data chip. Holding it up he stared at it for a long minute, then sighed, shrugged and tossed it to Seth. Looking him straight in the eye Frenchy snorted and spoke, "Okay, Seth. Could damn well be your funeral and you won't be buried in system dirt. If you locate the place you may even find an old mining robot we left behind if they...well, it may still be there. Anyway a man has to take a chance sometime in his life and you're an okay guy. It's all yours!"
Seth felt a thrill of building excitement. An adventure with maybe treasure at the end! Danger, cause the Oort cloud anywhere was always dangerous as hell. Quickly he clasped his data chip in his hand and thanked Frenchy effusively. Frenchy just waved his hand and told him that if he didn't come back there would be a candle lit at the local temple for his memory. Seth barely heard him as he eagerly rose and headed out the bar door.
Seth's ship, 'Sweet Sue' was already fueled and checked out. He had intended to go, as usual, to Waxmen, the local contract dealer. Get a corporate run and leave by the next morning - as usual - every time - over and over. 'But not today' he thought. 'This time it's my adventure!' Seth had never felt so excited since drawing that Royal Flush. He went to the spot next to the workbench and yanked the tarp off the ore scanner. A few blocks of equipment, a long coiled cable and the small antenna lattice. He only needed to connect the units, plug in a power lead and a jack to the main computer. Well, he would have to navigate the ship close to the asteroid surface, open the hatch in a spacesuit, run the cable out the door and attach the antenna to the front of the ship. Then go back and turn it on and then slowly, slowly move over the surface till the scanner lit up. Most important, Frenchy had said their might be a mining robot still on the surface. Seth had wondered why they had left such an expensive machine on the asteroid. He shied away from thinking why they hadn't gone back after it. The possibility that he might actually be able to mine some rare ore (not a lot he knew, this was a little Aurora after all) was still an enticing thought.
Sweet Sue was climbing steadily through the upper atmosphere. Seth was please at the smooth rumble of her engine and the small sounds of ticking and twinkling background needed by spacers. He was contacted by Orbital Control but most of the operations staff knew him by name. He knew they called him 'Steady Seth' as he had made this trip dozens and dozens and dozens...lots of times. Giving his destination as a system he had made many runs to before he then boosted toward the jump point. He knew that after this jump he would make two more, not usual, and enter the Goss system. From there he would start the long journey to the Oort cloud, guided by his computer from the data on the chip Frenchy had given him. He had his ebooks, holofilms and his dreams.
An economy long run was necessary so Seth had slept most of the way. After the computer had woke him he checked and found his fuel status good. Results of careful engine tuning and maintenance Seth thought, with pride. Eagerly Seth activated his scanners. Long range at first to see if anyone was around. He was only a few kilometers from the edge of the aggregate the data chip had shown. As his scanners swirled around it suddenly appeared. A blip, reading saying uncertain size but plainly large! And it was accelerating toward him at a fast rate for something big! Seth quickly worked his scanner controls and saw that the scanner units had been operating for almost a minute before suddenly that ship had 'appeared'. He damn well knew what that meant! Stealth! While that could mean a lot of things it screamed pirates or military (whose he didn't know - or care) and he wasn't about to hang around to find out.
Quickly Seth fired up his engines to full overclock and added his afterburner. Almost immediately he was into the aggregate field and his shield was registering the hits from small bits of meteoric debris. He had been forced a few times in his career to avoid pirates but this high speed run through an aggregate dense field was pushing his luck. However, he knew he wasn't skillful enough to keep this up and hoped the larger ship was falling behind, at least some. He scanned intently ahead while dodging, barely, a couple of biggie rocks. The he saw what he wanted. A small rock less than half a kilometer in length and thick enough. He arced around the end, cutting his engines and hitting the thrusters for retro. Seth was sliding down the length of the small asteroid and just did manage to stop before passing the other end. Some quick spurts on the thrusters pushed him to a jarring but undamaged landing on the surface when he hit the power down 'safe' mode. Everything went silent except for the whisper of the air blower.
Seth scrambled to don his spacesuit and the tried to decide whether to run the compressor to decompress the ship but finally simply sat and waited. Even the small electrical output from the compressor might give him away. About 100 feet in front of his Aurora was the end of the asteroid. Looking wildly around his port he desperately hoped he would see nothing - nothing! Luck was actually with him this day. Oh he saw something all right. A very large ship about the size of a frigate slid pass his view as it passed the end of the asteroid and slid smoothly on into the debris field. Seth stared in shock at the ship. Big black wings spread out in forward arcs. The fuselage was sprinkled with at least four turrets. Seth wasn't able to see a lot of detail here in the Oort where there was so little light. But he saw enough. Now he knew that the 'rumors' about Frenchy and Blackjack were all too true. Because he had never seen or heard about any ship designed like that.
Seth was in over his head and he knew it for certain. Frenchy had suggested he get some backup but now he realized why Frenchy had smiled at the same time. What kind of backup could you get to protect you from some alien frigate for gods sake! Seth realized he had to get out of here and fast. That was when his threat receiver sprung to life. That damn ship had switched to active scanners and was beginning to run a search pattern in the general area. They knew he had hidden and powered down! Suddenly two other scanners sprung to life and Seth realized that the big ship had launched a couple of small craft, probably fighters, to help in their search. 'Adventure.! Danger!' Seth thought, 'I have to get the hell out of here!'
Thinking furiously, Seth suddenly ran his computer for a record of his scans from the time he turned them on till shut down. He saw the alien blip but that was not what he was looking for. He had thought something had registered, something big. Not a ship tho. Then he had been avoiding that alien ship and not concerned much about anything else except escaping. Now he froze the screen and looked at the other large blip. 'A rogue planet' Seth thought to himself'. About 1000 kilometers in diameter and well off to starboard, probably 30,000 kilometers away in the Oort field. Seth knew this was probably his only chance at the moment. Carefully he ignited his thrusters and maneuvering carefully he crept slowly toward the planetoid, desperately keeping any asteroids or cometaries between Sweet Sue and those deadly looking ships.
Seth wiped sweat from his brown, and possibly a tear or two from sheer relief. He hadn't picked up any scanner pulses for over an hour and had just pulled around, by thrusters alone, to the side of the dead planetoid opposite from those alien ships. He also realized that they might reach here if they were determined so he knew he would need to land and hide him and his ship on the surface. That presented problems as well. The surface of this dead world was a jumble of rock and craters, cracks and canyons with high jagged mountains. He could almost certainly find an overhang but that would be the first thing the alien fighters would be checking. Nor did his baby have any stealth or reactive hull. Next, he could try for one of those big cracks or canyons. However there was no way he could be sure there was overhead cover at the bottom and he felt oddly sure that the unknown ships would continue their search and arrive, sooner than later. Seth was already examining the strange 'spikes' jutting up from the surface, indeed randomly and thickly spread across the surface. He quickly activated his Mobi-Glas data records and found that these rogue planets had formed in a system like any other planet but had sailed off not captured by their mother star. In further space the plasma and debris would solidify quicker than in a system thus forming a 'crust'. Internal pressure would build and eventually massive quantities of material would burst up through the crust and 'freeze' into giant spikes like those below.
'Spikes!' he thought. 'Giant metallic spikes!'. He was already steering for one of the 'forests' of spike nearest his ship and he carefully maneuvered between the first of them. The spikes varied in size, height and distance. Seth knew that it would take every bit of piloting skill he had to keep from hitting hard on one. Of course he did scape a couple and dented his hull but his readouts showed no internal damage of any significance. He had entered thru the base because he needed to find some sort of overhang as well. It turned out he hadn't needed additional luck. There were plenty of overhangs and folds and Seth finally squeezed under a fairly large one and got another dent in his hull. 'Damn It!' he cursed under his breath. Immediately he hit the emergency power down button and this time ran the compressor that stored the ships air. Placing some replacement air tanks close Seth settled back in his pilot chair. The Sweet Sue was pointing back toward where he had entered and all her weapons pointed forward. Seth's LN model had an extra hardpoint so he had mounted missiles and as many rapid fire beam guns (everybody called them gatlings) as he could squeeze on board. Any ship coming in from outside would have to come around a gentle curve but Sweet Sue had a sharp tongue and give even an alien weirdo's ship a solid 'kiss'. Seth hoped he was being optimistic about his chances.
Three hours later, three hours of worrying, sweating and talking to himself was more than he could stand. Recharging his oxy tanks he opened the airlock and checking the laser Pistol in its holster he climbed down to the surface. With gravity only a fraction of a Gee he moved carefully to the rear of the ship to see how far in this cave-like overhang continued. He hadn't paid much attention coming in because it had looked like a solid rock barrier. The spikes actually did act to blanket scanners so the talk about them being metallic was true, at least here.
As he moved behind the ship he saw that there was a wall of the spike material but it took a sharp curve to port. Nervously curious he walked carefully around the curve and stopped dead still. 10 meters ahead was another wall. Inset in this wall were three beams of what looked like a dull yellow metal formed in a triangle. The base beam was at least 5 meters long and the two others forming the triangle were about 10 meters to a point. The triangle opening was an entrance to a further tunnel. However, each metallic beam had an incised symbol. Looking like a capitol 'B' with little curlicues inside. They only held his attention for only a second or two.
"SHIT!" was his exclamation, yelled loudly in his suit. Because there, in three neat rows, were about 30 normal spacesuits. Stunned for a long moment, since none of them moved which, Seth knew, would have made him turn and run like hell back to the ship. It took long moments to gather up his courage but then he went to the nearest suit and slowly examined it under the light of his handflash. It was empty! Puzzled even more than frightened he examined the next suit. It too, was empty. Minutes later he had found that all the suits were empty. By clicking on the external diagnostic unit every human suit mounted, he determined that, except for missing main power packs, all the suits were perfectly functional. No tank air however. 'What in the gods name was going on here' Seth thought. He glanced fearfully and suspiciously at the weird tunnel entrance. 'No way in hell was he going to enter that hole alone' he thought with finality. He did however, go over to see if anything could be seen from the entrance with his light.
Seth was again stunned into immobility. By this point he was getting strung out with surprises and adrenaline flow. The tunnel sloped gently downward. Only two things were visible and that was what stunned Seth, again. The first thing was about 6 feet long and a foot in diameter. It looked like some form of seamless crystal and was covered with facets, like a diamond. There was a faint bluish glow when his light was not on it. The other was a man or what looked to have once been a man. Seth had seen a decompression death once before but this time he swallowed and didn't throw up in his suit. Gulping hard he made sure he had the man's body on his recorder. Stooping over he gingerly searched the mans body but found only a pair of dog tags. UEE Navy dogtags. Breathing hard he took the dogtags and then he tried to lift the big crystal and found it very easy, it was not dense. He left carrying the crystal and got back in the Aurora. Putting it in the back he turned and entered the cockpit to find a red warning light flashing. Surprised he guiltily turned on Bouncing Betty to transmit, which he had forgotten to do after he evacuated the ship.
"Attention! Attention! Unidentified armed vessel at zero degrees relative, range 73 meters! Attention! Attention!" Terror surged through Seth as he looked up to see a black, winged fighter directly in front of the Sweet Sue.
"Betty!" screamed Seth, "emergency fire code Alpha Now!" desperately diving for his seat. The ship vibrated as every weapon was automatically fired. The cave front was filled with silent explosions and laser flashes that vibrated the ships hull and rocked Seth in his seat.
Seth carefully piloted the Aurora over and around the bigger pieces of the strange ship. The ship had probably carried some explosive ordinance that had been detonated because there were only fragments and sparking debris remaining. Seth simply felt numb. He had never killed anyone before. The rapid succession of threats, emergencies and surprise had drained him. He felt like a zombie must feel. Without even considering anything else he rocketed Sweet Sue up and took a fast and dangerous route out of the Oort cloud and raced toward Station 13 and the perceived safety of the UEE. Not long after he had left the cloud his scanners picked up a blip behind him. It wasn't the big ship but had readings that matched the fighters. Seth didn't care what happened anymore, he pushed the engines to overclock for hour after hour, watching the blip close very slowly. He had also pulled the red and yellow distress beacon in hope that some ship might come to his aid. Suddenly two things happened at once. From ahead on his scanners Betty reported a new blip and identified it as a patrol ship of the Advocacy answering the distress call. The second report from Betty indicated that the pursuing blip had faded from the radar.
Advocacy Marshall Adames took his statements aboard Station 13 without comment. Seth turned over his recordings and the dogtags as well but crossed his fingers and said nothing about the strange crystal in his ships hold, hoping they would not search Sweet Sue. The Marshall then had him sign a non-disclosure agreement, backed by the UEE Official Secrets Act. As he was leaving the Marshall told him to wait in his office. Once there Adames opened a safe and extracted a fat envelope. Opening it he took out a bundle of UEE credits totaling 25,000cr. Adames removed the binder, stamped with the UEE emblem, from around the bills and handed them to Seth. Then speaking for the first time since the 'interrogation', he told Seth, "You might want to go home and please do not come back."
Frenchy sat down at Seth's table in Harry's bar. Seth nodded and turned to Harry, the bartender and owner and said " A bottle of your best Brandy Harry, please!" Frenchy looked at Seth with a raised eyebrow. Seth casually pulled a small data chip from his pocket, looked at it and then with a smile, flipped it to Frenchy, who caught it without looking.
Seth spoke, "I guess you won't need that candle after all Frenchy." Frenchy stared at Seth for a moment, watching as Seth pulled out a wad of bills to pay Harry for the dusty bottle of brandy and set out two glasses. As Seth peeled off a couple of hundreds and gave them to Harry, Frenchy asked "Seth, you going back again?"
As Seth pulled out the old cork and poured them drinks he replied, "Found a Dead World Frenchy. Thought you and Blackjack might be interested. Marshall Adames sends his greetings. As for going back? Not a chance in hell", said Seth fervently, "they don't call me Steady Seth for nothin'".