The small shuttlecraft cut through the bleakness of space like a bird against a vast desert plain, the only life that reveals itself, a beacon to anything lurking, watching, waiting. Inside the craft the passengers waited, some ruefully, some nervously, some expectantly and all eager to reach there destination.
"So here we go, on our way to the new frontier," Managerial Director Stevens leant back in his seat, slid both his hands through his hair and brought them to rest at the nape of his neck and sighed, happy in the knowledge that one of his dreams was about to be realised.
"Your still hung up on that whole pioneer ideal, Cowboys and Indians, the Wild West!" a scathing, laugh broke from Ruchechnik, he hunched forward holding his stomach as if to further degrade Stevens fascination. Stevens just shrugged it off, coming from anyone else it would have hurt, no, angered him but he'd grow used to the half-Russian Quantum Physicists bitter humour years ago. "Your vicious, you know that don't you?" Stevens remarked with a mixture of fake scorn and facetiousness he tried to disguise. Ruchechnik smiled briefly, reached into a compartment under his seat and produced two mugs and a slender metallic flask. He poured out generous amounts of steaming transparent liquid and handed one to Stevens. They both sat silently, drinking and listening to the sounds of the other passengers.
There were ten of them altogether, Stevens and Ruchechnik, Engineers Powell and Blackwell, two large corporate types, Archer and Winans, two security officers, the pilot and a nameless drunk Ruchechnik believed was a spy the company had sent along just to keep an eye on proceedings. Stevens put down his mug and began to speak " You know its always fascinated me, I don't know why but," he paused, brought the mug back up to his lips then continued "I mean you've got to admit it does have a certain allure, a certain ..." Stevens glanced over at Ruchechnik, he'd tilted his head slightly to the side and raised one eyebrow, his eyes glazed over. Stevens sighed again and changed his focus to an imaginary place in the middle distant between himself and the ceiling and in doing so missed a sly smile cross Ruchechniks face, he was playing with him, just like when they were younger. That look was Ruchechnik's standard response to a topic he didn't even consider worthy of his consideration or attention, to the uninitiated it could be as unpleasant as his barbed tongue. But Stevens had a suborn side, he was determined to get at least some of his argument across, "Okay then," his voice was unsure as he tried to establish a coherent line of thought "what about being the first in a new land, getting to explore, discover and ..."
"And pillage, steal, kill," Ruchechnik interrupted sharply, leaving a small pause between each word to increase there poignancy.
"Yes, okay, so its not all perfect and things would be handled differently in this day and age but just think, with our space travel, there are so many chances to repeat that experience and this is mine, my chance to explore, discover and,"
"and pillage, steal, kill" grins Ruchechnik
"Knock that off "
"Yeah, yeah whatever. But anyway, here we are on our way to oversee the construction of the first mining facility in the whole of the Sado Island asteroid field, collecting the equivalent of gold. I just feel like a ... err,"
"Yeah. Yeah. We're out here setting this thing up. Then it'll become a fully operational mining community, bleeding edge technology, tens of thousands of people living, working, prospering all because we had this opportunity." Stevens's voice drifted off and an inexplicable happiness contorted his face and radiated from him. Ruchechnik looked at the liquid sloshing around in his mug and smiled, Stevens wasn't normally like this, so gullible, unsure. Ruchechnik put it down to nerves and stress, Stevens was having some family difficulties and he'd never been this far offworld before, it must be quite an experience for him. Stevens had drifted off to sleep, Ruchechnik got up and walked to a window, he stood silently for a few minutes, staring at the passing dust clouds and distant stars and listening to the noise of everything around him.
Powell and Blackwell were discussing the possible strategies for continuation of the project and the kind of state they hoped it would be in, Archer was drowning under a seemingly infinite sea of papers and files that he'd pulled out of a considerably small brief case. Winans and the mysterious drunk were mysteriously missing, Ruchechnik sniggered as various implausible conspiracy theories shot through his mind. He wandered over to the table Powel and Blackwell were sat around and pulled up a chair, they began to talk him through some over their opposing ideas with increasing enthusiasm, Ruchechnik decided to change the subject rather than be drawn into an argument, "Do either of you two know the history of this place?"
"Well yes, I know there were some ... complications with the original construction," Powell began,
"Complications!" Ruchechnik laughed again and Blackwell grinned, sharing the joke. Blackwell straightened her glasses and face then began, "What have they told you? It was an absolute disaster, over 400 people lost their lives, millions of dollars worth of equipment wasted, years of work and over what? A company skimping on its human rights policies, that can of thing was abhorrent a 100 years ago, now its totally unacceptable!" Blackwell's voice was confident to such a degree she almost sounded arrogant or perhaps, Ruchechnik pondered, she only took that tone to Powell, it was quite clear she didn't like him. Ruchechnik wandered away again as Powell began to try and defend himself.
Stevens was awake, he beckoned for Ruchechnik to sit again, opposite him, Ruchechnik sat. Stevens rolled his eyes over toward Powell and Blackwell then back and said, in a hushed voice "What do you think of all the history and stories?"
Ruchechnik cupped his chin in his left hand and stroked his stubble, "I'm not sure, I know what officially happened and I've heard all the unofficial tales, the riots, the suicides, the disappearances, but," his attention shifted to Winans who'd just emerged out of the cockpit. Winans started toward Archer but stopped as he saw the flustered state he was in, he frowned at Blackwell then headed toward Stevens and Ruchechnik. He took a seat and turned to Stevens, "What are they arguing about?"
"Who knows, but I know one thing, by time we make the return journey these arguments will have developed in lovers tiffs or we'll be one member short," The three of them laughed slightly then Stevens continued "There arguing about the history of the Sado Island site, about the failure of the original construction project." Winans looked at Powel, who was now standing and pointing one ominous finger at Blackwell then back to Stevens, his face a total blank. Ruchechnik was performing his 'look' again, "You don't know?!", Winans placed one hand over his mouth and shook his head slightly then said "I know the first attempt failed, I know the details of the project and what it was trying to achieve and I know theirs a hell of a lot of profit to be made. I'm a businessman this is a business venture, all that I want to know is the business side of things,"
Ruchechnik took a deep breath "I think you really ought to do more research before becoming a potential investor," he sighed then nodded at Stevens, as if to ask him to take over. Stevens wiped his brow with the cuff of his shirt then started "The area of space we are heading for was originally thought to be void, useless, no planets, no stars, no resources, no anything. It was left alone for 50 or so years until a tiny Japanese express courier craft ran into some unforeseen objects when on course straight across this sector. A massively dense asteroid field was discovered, quite how it was missed before was uncertain, conspiracy theories floating around say perhaps it was first discovered years ago but particular powers decided to keep it hidden or harvest the resources for there own ends. Anyway the Japanese corporation claimed the field and named it the Sado Island asteroid belt, after a real 'lost' Japanese island that appears in Japanese mythology and folklore, if I'm not mistaken. The reasoning isn't important," he paused, reached into the storage compartment under his own seat and retrieved a large bottle of water, he poured himself some then offered the bottle to Winans. Stevens continued "so the Japanese sent out several teams to set-up a facility out here but all failed, there are talks of technical difficulties, of the asteroids in the field being exceptionally tough and volatile, of mercenaries, space pirates, you name it. Eventually the Japanese gave up for undisclosed reasons and offered the area up for international use, so long as a suitable percentage made its way to their wallets. This is where we come in, well almost. Our company signed an agreement with the Japanese for sole mining privilege of this area, provided a multi-billion dollar settlement fee and a promised percentage of all harvested resources. So five years ago the first expeditions were sent out to chart and document the entire field and decided on the most efficient place for setting up a mining colony. Several craft vanished but of the ones that returned the data presented showed a density of chemical and mineral resources that far exceeded original ideas, the plans for a mining colony were quickly altered from the standard into the single largest, most ambitious offworld colony ever planned. An entire construction company was purchased to be the fleet who would build this thing. It began slowly at first with more rumours and inexplicable events of technical difficulties, the asteroids being tough and volatile, mercenaries, space pirates, the same stuff. Then it all begins to get hazy. Something happened, quite what is uncertain, theirs never been a single official standing on it or an outside investigation of any kind. The generally excepted story is that the company, in efforts to cut down costs of this already inconceivably expensive endeavour, had been taking on cheap, illegal workers and using convicts from a nearby prison colony as unpaid labour. Eventually tension flared up and riots broke out, over lack of safety measures, over the supposed frequent disappearances, perhaps over the convict labours, no-one knows. What we do know how ever is that the company's private security force was brought in, lots of damage was done, lots of people died, the project was officially abandoned." Stevens leant back in seat and poured himself some more water. Ruchechnik took over "Unofficially however the project was just put on the backburner. The site was evacuated but a cleanup team and a considerable portion of the security force were left behind to protect and prepare the site for continuation once the trouble had died down, been easily forgotten like all the other terrible events we hear of daily." Ruchechnik paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, perhaps because he wanted to see the look in Winans eyes, perhaps because he's an idiot, Stevens though to himself. Ruchechnik stretched his arms then continued "Months, Years passed without major incident, the security force gradually departed until just a single cleanup team remained. And that brings us up to date, we're here, on our way to the Sado Island site to assess the viability of an immediate restart to the project." Ruchechnik turned to Winans, didn't say anything but just stared, expectantly, waiting for Winans to speak. He remained silent for the best part of 5 minutes then said, "Okay, so people died, it was tragic, sure, but was I involved? Should I feel guilt or even remorse for actions that didn't slightly concern me? Like I said I'm a businessman and all I'm interested in is the opportunities this project can open for me, for all of us." Ruchechnik laughed "And you say I'm vicious!" he got up and walked off towards the most distant window at the back of the hold, disappearing behind an assortment of crates, boxes and supplies. Winans too had wandered off toward Archer leaving Stevens alone, he shrugged, leant his head back even further and shut his eyes.
Several hours later Stevens awoke to a thumping headache, whatever Ruchechnik was drinking it didn't agree with him, it had a potent and vile aftertaste even after all that water and all this time. Stevens muttered "Must be narcotics, chemicals, he moved past alcohol years ago," Steven's grinned then noticed no one was around him. He stood up, carefully at first just in case his legs were a little unsteady, and listened, he heard murmuring and the shuffling of bodies close by, toward the front of the hold, adjacent to the cockpit. He cautiously began to work his way rough the network of stacked boxes and towards the sounds, he turned one more corner and found the rest of the team. They were packed, tightly into a small space between the first row of crates and the main loading door window, puzzled Stevens drew attention to his presence by clearing his throat. Ruchechnik stepped out from the small huddled crowd and beckoned with his hand for Stevens to take his place. Bemused and also intrigued Stevens stepped forward to see what they were looking at.
What he saw astounded him. He'd expected the framework of the mining colony project, all that was left after the incidents, to be massive as he'd been to an offworld construction before and was awe-struck by the sheer size of it. It paled into insignificance when compared to what he now saw. Seventeen or so 'U' shaped structures stretched off before them all joined at the centre of the curve by what seemed like an immense vertebral column, in fact now he though of it that's what the structure reminded him off. The ribcage and vertebrae of some long dead creature, a creature that's size, presence and incredible mass could intimidate the vastness of space itself. A feeling swept over Stevens, almost indescribable, he guessed this is what people meant when they discussed that moment in everyone's life when they realise there total insignificant in comparison to the universe around them. Only Stevens experienced it at an intensity that made his knees weak, made his stomach retch and gave him the foul taste and sting of acidic bile in the back of his mouth, he was amazed, speechless, frightened and distressed. He struggled in his mind to comprehend what the colony would look like when finished, he struggled to find a word to encompass the magnitude of what he imaged, something so much more than a colony.
The next hour or so passed like a dream where time is tangible you taste, sometimes touch and always feel it but your perception of its passing leaves you disoriented. Stevens's mind was going round and round, he imaged the feeling of what the first people to see the Pyramids must have felt and he questioned whether he could actually realise his dream or whether truly discovering something new was far beyond him.
The construction site also overwhelmed Ruchechnik, he'd known about it for years, seen images before but he wasn't prepared for it. He didn't show how much it concerned, excited and disgusted him, all he said was "Nice," whilst in his head he questioned the stability, constitution and motives of a race that could build such a monstrosity all for the purely material gain of 'precious' natural resources. Ruchechnik needed a distraction, he got up from his seat and headed towards the cockpit to enquire how long before they docked with the only remaining vessel of the cleanup team, he wanted to shower, shave and rest his mind. Ruchechnik wondered if the sight of the colony structure had affected the pilot, he asked. "Not really," was the slightly unexpected and underwhelming reply that greeted him, the pilot continued "I've been coming out here every few months since the cleanup project started, doing resupply runs, y'know its like anything, you get used to it after a while." Ruchechnik couldn't imagine getting used to that sight. "I'm coming around for a docking approach now," the pilot announced after a good ten minutes of silence, "Don't you need to contact the crew of the vessel first?" Ruchechnik wondered. "I have, but got no response," the pilot said then continued quickly before Ruchechnik began to worry "But it doesn't matter, all the systems need to dock are online, it'll be fine. Chances are the crew are either asleep or experiencing some generator difficulties, this has happened plenty of times,"
Ruchechnik thought back to a conversation several days earlier with Blackwell, he'd asked what kind of craft had been left alone out here to clean up the mess over 3 years. She'd answered with "The 02883, a industrial variant of a standard Corral class construction vessel." Ruchechnik didn't recognise that class, "I'm not surprised," Blackwell continued "Its not a commercial vessel, if your not in the construction industry it really has no relevance,". Ruchechnik opened his mouth and Blackwell pre-empted his question "It's generally used for storage or as additional workspace or inexpensive additional housing for workers or whatever the situation calls for, it's a very flexible design." He beckoned for her to continue, glad he chose not to ask Powell and endure the monotonous drone of his voice. "It's based around a central hub from that theirs a network of tunnels and rooms that make vessels basically circular upper decks. In the central area is the dock, access to the mainframe and standard facilities for the crew: quarters, kitchens, bathroom, briefing room, lounge area, it's quite comfortable." She spoke the last three words in a way that made it sound like she'd spent a decent amount of time on one of these vessels. She paused, ran her fingers through her hair and sighed "Unless, of course, you have to spend your time on the lower decks ..." The remainder of the conversation blurred out of Ruchechniks mind, until he came to the reason he'd remembered in the first place, the generator. "The generators are horribly unstable and require frequent periods inactivity for cooling down, they do however have an excellent fuel to power output ratio,"
Ruchechnik was brought back to the real world by the pilot pointing and saying "Here we are," The ship wasn't exactly what Ruchechnik had been expecting, given Blackwell's description. It was almost circular on the upper decks, the bottom was a smaller series of circular decks and several cylindrical tubes extending vertically down to bank of solar panels and various satellites. The remarkable thing however was the upper potion of the craft, extending horizontally from it at equal intervals were six long support beams and hundreds of smaller beams protruding at all angles. Large facilities where quite literally hung from the larger beams and secured with a network of girders, starting at the bottom of each facility and working there way back up to the support beam. Ruchechnik could see how the name 'cages' Blackwell had used for these precisely and precariously hung facilities came about. From the angle they were at now the nonchalantly named 02883 seemed like a large, space faring, twelve legged insect with a fat round body as its centre. The pilot announced over the intercom system that docking was about to commence and if people could please take a seat and fasten their security measures so he won't lose his insurance 'no incident' bonus.
The docking procedure went smoothly, the two security guards emerged from the back room and opened the interior door as Ruchechnik and the pilot came down from the cockpit. The pilot turned and pointed at one of the windows on the side of the shuttle opposite the 02883, "Take a good long look as it's the last time you'll see them for the next two weeks," he then turned to punch a security code into a keypad, the door hummed slightly then opened slowly, the pilot and security guards stepped off first and left the others staring blankly at the stars.
Several weeks later a partially audible message was recovered from a distress beacon: "Ship overrun, crew dead" static interference cuts out the message "half the craft locked down" static again "can't get us here but oxygen is limited" heavy breathing followed by a period of violent coughing, then sounds, distant unfamiliar sounds and then silence. The message continues for several minutes, distant arguments can just be heard. Someone wants to leave, someone else wants to stop them, someone gets shot, a door is slammed, some else's voice can be heard chanting, the words can't be made out. Again a long period of silence followed by noises, this time screams, human screams and then silence. Uncontrollable crying fades in and out between layers of static, the tearing of metal and heavy breathing. A single gunshot. The message ends.
The beacon is handed over to the Frontiersmen, a squad is dispatched.