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Denizens: 1 - Lobster

...Not that the Chaffee was a bad ship; on the contrary, as miners went, it was considered one of the better postings. But although being on it had put him where he wanted more than anywhere else to be, it was still a miner, and Roland had his sights set higher than the merchant fleet. Tooling around the asteroid belt capturing rocks the size of a small island was not going to be his life’s work, not if he could help it.

Career-wise, his eyes were on the newly created United Space Federation, formed in the wake of the scientific discoveries that had revolutionized space flight in the early years of the twenty-first century. The Federation’s recruitment quotas had been filled for the year by the time he had completed his basic astronaut training, and he had accepted this posting to the mining fleet in order to gain valuable off-planet experience. But next year….

Ensign Roland Parke is made for space travel, for excitement and high adventure - and when master story teller Brian William Neal is at work you are guaranteed a plentiful supply of these ingredients.

Today Brian launches into another gripping sci-fi tale. Though set in the future it has huge releveance for today. Follow the story week by week in Open Writing.

Read also Brian's novels The Kingdom Of The Blind and The Last Star Trek by clicking on those titles in the menu on this page.

BOOK ONE

GENESIS

denizen, n. inhabitant; species permanently established but not native of a place. - Oxford Dictionary



PART ONE

Overture

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dream’t of in your philosophy.” - Hamlet, Act 1, Scene V

1 - Lobster

The Asteroid Belt
October, 2032

The giant rock had waited millennia to be found. Lonely traveler, eternally circling the sun, it had never once come within a thousand miles of any of its kind. In the never-ending vastness of space, it continued on its tumbling path, as if silently fleeing its catastrophic beginnings.

Its surface was pitted with the scars of countless impacts by the tiny particles that fill so-called “empty” space, although it had never before encountered any object of appreciable size. Nor had any light, other than that emanating from the weak sun, four hundred million miles distant, ever played across its ancient features.

Until now.

*

The huge pincers of the mining ship spread, caliper-like, and reached for the asteroid as the ship’s crew carried out the maneuvers that matched their speed and trajectory with those of the rock. They had tracked it following its selection by the computer as suitable for their purposes; now it hung suspended before them, looming hugely in the glare of their vessel’s lights.

Inside the chunky, unstreamlined body of the miner, Ensign Roland Parke made delicate minor adjustments on the panel before him, controlling the spread of the pincers while other members of the crew searched for exactly the right spot to snare the mile-wide moonlet.

Ensign Parke watched his board with only half an eye, the rest of his attention playing idly with his favorite daydream. He had performed this operation so many times, he felt he could do it in his sleep. Having achieved the first part of his life’s ambition by making it into space, he would be glad when this tour was over, and he could get back to earth.

Not that the Chaffee was a bad ship; on the contrary, as miners went, it was considered one of the better postings. But although being on it had put him where he wanted more than anywhere else to be, it was still a miner, and Roland had his sights set higher than the merchant fleet. Tooling around the asteroid belt capturing rocks the size of a small island was not going to be his life’s work, not if he could help it.

Career-wise, his eyes were on the newly created United Space Federation, formed in the wake of the scientific discoveries that had revolutionized space flight in the early years of the twenty-first century. The Federation’s recruitment quotas had been filled for the year by the time he had completed his basic astronaut training, and he had accepted this posting to the mining fleet in order to gain valuable off-planet experience. But next year….

“Keep on her, Ensign, for the love of God.”

The deep, soft yet penetrating growl of the Chaffee’s captain, Hans Andreassen, intruded on Roland’s woolgathering, and he returned his full attention quickly to the board. The Skipper did a fair amount of growling, a reasonable but not undue proportion of it going in Roland’s direction; nevertheless, Roland thought the man was mostly O.K. Standing behind his chair in the middle of the bridge, his magnetic boots anchoring him to the ship’s deck plates, Andreassen’s huge frame, with his face half-hidden behind a thick, black beard, made him an imposing, intimidating figure.

However, Roland and the rest of the twenty man crew (sexual equality not yet having been extended to asteroid mining ships) knew he was just as capable of roaring with laughter at a good joke, or rewarding a job well done, as he was of expressing his disapproval by verbally (and sometimes physically) kicking ass. The giant Dane was a superb spaceman, as his Viking ancestors before him were sailors, and he demanded, if not perfection, then at the very least professional competence from his crew.

Despite being occasionally on the receiving end of the captain’s ire, Roland did not mind the discipline. As a trainee officer, with hopes of one day rising high in the USF hierarchy, he believed in it strongly. The environment in which he had chosen to work did not forgive mistakes, nor did it offer many second chances, if any.

The reason for his itchy feet was far more basic: he was bored. Nothing ever happened on these runs; Ensign Parke craved excitement, and if one thing was certain, it was that he wasn’t going to find it here, far out in the lonely reaches of the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, three hundred million miles from earth.

Roland himself was the product of a training program instigated by the Federation’s predecessor, NASA, fifteen years previously in 2012. After the breakthroughs in the early years of the twenty-first century in the development of fusion power, the resources- hungry nations of the world had been quick to realize their potential. The availability of a cheap and plentiful supply of energy, as well as a virtually unlimited supply of fuel seemed almost too good to be true. Accompanying these discoveries was the almost simultaneous invention of a revolutionary new method of propulsion, and the way was at last clear for the exploration of the solar system.

The downside was the fact that the increased production from earth’s factories meant an even more rapid increase in the pollution that was already clogging the atmosphere. However, this was largely ignored in the name of (officially) progress and (actually) profits.

The result of this scrambling after the almighty dollar was a dramatic worsening of the pollution problems that had plagued the earth for more than a hundred and fifty years, right back to the Industrial Revolution and the smogs of Victorian London.

As a sop to the growing protest movement, and its ever-increasing lobbying power, several factories were planned for construction in orbit around the earth. They would, it was said, replace the smelters on earth, their waste gases supposedly drifting off into space.

Unfortunately, some studies now showed that most of that waste would eventually fall back into the planet’s gravity well, and settle into the upper atmosphere. What the resultant build-up would do from there was not clearly understood, but it was hardly likely to be good news for the people on the surface.

However, not all the news was bad. The new propulsion system combined a fusion generator with a conventional rocket to produce what amounted to a perpetual engine able to run, it seemed, indefinitely. There were several prototypes in existence; one, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena had been running non-stop for more than nine years, fueled only by water and supplemented by occasional injections of small amounts of hydrogen, and it showed no signs of giving up. The only limitations seemed to be the materials used in the engine’s construction, and their ability to stand up to constant use.

Using this new drive, ships were now able to make the journey to this part of the asteroid belt in just thirteen days. After leaving earth orbit, they accelerated at one gee to the halfway point, then turned around and decelerated at the same rate for the rest of the trip. This ability to accelerate and decelerate continuously produced an on-board gravity that had not existed on previous spacecraft, which had coasted to their destinations in between short burns from their conventional engines.

The discovery of this fabulous new source of power, married in tandem with the new drive, had brought the entire solar system within reach. For the first time, humans could seriously plan expeditions to the outer planets. Roland knew of a mission to Jupiter that was scheduled to take place within two years, and after that, who knew? Perhaps the stars.

The options were, it seemed, limitless. Now the earth need not be the only home to humans, although the colonizing of other planets was still a long way off. There were, however, other problems closer to home. In the last twenty years, the earth’s population had burgeoned from six billion to almost double, at more than eleven billion. Overcrowding, famine and pollution were catastrophes of epidemic proportions and the planet’s industries toiled around the clock in a desperate attempt to keep pace with the demand for food, clothing and consumer goods, necessities and luxuries alike, in an endless cycle.

New York, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and other cities of the so-called “developed” world were not faring that much better than those of less prosperous nations. Delhi, Calcutta, Johannesburg, Sao Paulo and Mexico City were only marginally worse, their slightly less industry being more than compensated for by their greater population. The incidence of people dying in the streets of the second group of cities was not as far above that of the first as it once had been.

Forests were being felled faster than they could have been replaced, even if the industries doing the felling had been of a mind to do so. Worldwide privatization of assets by right-wing, monetarist governments begun by, of all people, the British in the nineteen eighties, had resulted in countries’ precious resources falling into private hands, which effectively handed over control of each nation to the conglomerates. Already many saw the colonization of other worlds, whatever the difficulties involved, as the earth’s only chance to survive the Age of the Entrepreneur.

To the apostles of human expansion, the new energy source and drive system was seen as the answer to their prayers. But the more pragmatic of them were quick to point out that while the solar system was one thing, the stars were very definitely another. Although this propulsion system had been in use in spacecraft (including the Chaffee) for several years now, interplanetary distances were minuscule when compared with those to even the closest stars. Even with the new drive, future colonists would need to spend long periods in space making the journey.

The nearest star system to earth, the triple star group of Centauri A, B, and C was four point three light years away. Given that a light year was something slightly less than six trillion miles, even a ship traveling at the speed of light would take considerably longer than five years to reach it, due to the deceleration required. And the Centauri group almost certainly did not have any planets orbiting any of its stars, so the first interstellar explorers would have to go further.

Colonies could be and were being planned for places like the moon and certain other satellites such as Titan and some of the moons of Jupiter, even Mars itself and its moons. Expeditions, however, were still a long way off, and although the new drive made the planets more easily reachable, their settlement was, as yet, only a dream. The stars would almost certainly not be reached in this century.

Roland stretched his lanky frame and ran his fingers through his close-cropped blond hair. An expedition to another star system! Now that, he thought, sounds like my kind of ship. Discounting accepted scientific dogma, a spacecraft capable of perpetual acceleration ought to be able to go on increasing its velocity indefinitely. There was, however, the not so little matter of relativity to consider. Disciples of Einsteinian theory were adamant as to the maximum velocity such a ship might reach. The speed of light, they maintained, was a theoretical ideal, as the crew of that first starship would discover.

Roland sighed as he tried to imagine the wonders they might see, should they somehow succeed in achieving the speed of light, and make the stars accessible. Other star systems, other worlds, perhaps even other civilizations. Rapt, he stared unseeing at his instruments, until a familiar growl brought him back to reality.

“If you try very hard, Mr. Parke, you just might be able to miss this one. After all, it can’t be more than a mile across.”

Roland muttered an apology, his cheeks burning, and concentrated fiercely on the screen before him. The asteroid was now looming over the miner like a false planetscape, and the ship was in perfect synchronization with its movements. Under Roland’s direction, the huge pincers that gave the ship its nickname reached out and grasped the rock, their electromagnetic points digging into the surface and anchoring fast. Roland spoke without taking his eyes off the screen.

“Secure, sir”.

Captain Andreassen applied minimal power to the attitude thrusters, and the ship and its cargo began to move towards the massive bulk of the ore carrier Hudson. Although more than twenty miles away, the mother ship would still have been naked-eye visible to the men on the Chaffee had not the bulk of the asteroid blocked any view of her. Beyond the massive rock, the Hudson appeared the size of a little fingernail held at arm’s length, shining like a small moon among the myriad other points of light against the blackness of space.

Once the course was laid in, and the ship had the correct forward momentum, the captain gave the order to release the asteroid. Then he applied reverse thrust, and sent the rock gently on its pre-determined trajectory, its speed and course carefully calculated to avoid collision with any others from any of the eleven other “Lobsters” that made up this section of the mining fleet.

As the rock neared the Hudson, the carrier’s scout ships, space tugs smaller than an orbital shuttle would intercept it, and by nudging and pushing would move the asteroid to a position near the ship. Once there, its engineers would go to work on it, determining its mineral content, and thereby assessing its worth for the insatiable foundries of earth.

The whole operation had taken less than thirty minutes, and the men of the Chaffee continued scanning space for their next likely prospect. Roland, like the others totally unaware of the momentous events he had just helped to set in motion, and of the fabulous prize they had sent to the waiting engineers, went back to his dreams of starships at light speed, and voyages of wonder.


***


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