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Illegal Mining on Kilian X

Posted on Jul 2, 1991 in Featured, News | 0 comments

Shel locks his thruster ignition with a switch-cover so he doesn’t accidentally activate it during approach. As we silently drift towards the growing disc of the planet surface, black against the contrasting light from Kilian’s distant star, the crew and I discuss the upcoming approach.

“Hit it wrong and we’ll have half the [expletive] Corp rain down on us.” The Serene nature of our flight transitions to a sense of unease, jagged as the surface, as the multitude of potential problems are numbered.

We started our approach hours ago. The calculations required to lay in the navpoint and time the burn perfectly took multiple attempts. Thousands of kilometers from the tenth planet of Kilian, away from the scanners and patrol ships, we began a steady course before burning hard to level all of the axis for a straight shot to a distant encounter with the planet’s dark side. Once Shel McCormick, captain of the Freelancer “Melinda”, and his two supporting ships had the course locked and instruments set, we cut all thrusters, electronics, and power. Nothing but battery-operated heat and an air-recycling pump.

“Poor-man’s stealth,” Shel had called it.

McCormick and his two partner ships, another Freelancer “BatNose” and an Aurora “Tailpipe Serenade”, were kind enough to allow me a ride-along on this less-than-authorized mining expedition, though not without some hesitation and plying with Emerick Whiskey.

McCormick is of course not his real name. Oddly enough none of the captains minded using their actual ship names for this publication. “Won’t exactly set off any bells because they’re not exactly registered,” chuckled the captain of the BatNose.

The next few hours are spent with the small crew of the Melinda, playing cards and watching the portable scanback reader for signs that we’ve been found. Nothing. A clean drift along a straight line and we arrive at the 10th planet of Kilian as calculated, with no sign of patrol boats, and more importantly, away from the watchful eye of Corin.

As the planet’s dark patch approaches, a few minor adjustments are made with external thrust-bottles activated by wire. Still no power.

“They don’t look in the dark. Know it won’t do any good.”

The UEE security patrols, outdated Avenger class, primarily stick to the light-side of the worlds they are tasked with guarding against this very form of illicit claim-jumping. Most ore-cutters have learned to run cold by now, so the patrol’s only hope is to catch a visual. And some cutters are apparently naive enough, or inept enough, to fly through the light-side atmo, streaking an exclamation for the entire hemisphere to see.

We’re through the atmosphere ourselves now, and Shel and his pack wait until what feels like too late to give the signal and light up all power and thrusters to push the rocky surface away from their hulls. Now in this crimson black they must quickly speed along the surface to arrive at their destination and the mining crew that awaits.

The cutter crew arrived by the same method days before the haulers. A two-man crew and equipment carried in on the “Rockslider”, an aged Cutlass fixed with on-ship drill-beams for hollowing out a cavern home near the dig site. Or if no cavern is found, carving one, all before daylight hits the mark. It’s a job for the truly insane, according to the Melinda’s turret gunner and prime mechanic. “But those Conner brothers never really had much use for sanity. Or soap by the smell of them.”

Within 20 minutes of breaching the atmosphere our three ship pack arrives at the mark, and slowly enters the narrow mouth opening of the sheer rock face. The Rockslider had no trouble skirting the passage and the jagged formations clawing at its hull, but our three would never survive unscathed if they hadn’t been cleared first. As we approach the interior base of operations, the marks are clear on the Cutlass’ hull even now through the dusting of ore and rock powder clinging to its surface.

The dust is everywhere, in-fact, and a frequent visor-wipe of our environment suits becomes a quickly learned habit. The machinery is closer than expected, and it’s clear this setup is not intended to be a long-term operation.

Without a word to the brothers, our crew unloads the empty and clearly aged dumpster-like containers from their holds, along with two smaller sealed crates and a heavy-wheeled loader to begin the scoop and deposit of the ore.

Each pile is surprisingly neat in their rows along the path of the cutter. Despite any pre-conceived notions about their personal hygiene, it’s clear the Conner brothers know their craft and are serious about the execution of it.

While the Aurora’s crew is focused on filling the cargo bins, the rest of our crew is tending to the large portable fans powered by auxiliary cells from the Freelancers, and directed at containing the billowing ore dust away from the cave’s entrance as daylight approaches. The mistakes of the caught guide their actions even now.

We’re not allowed to venture outside to see the surface by day. This is not the same crew that poured down homegrown alcohol and grinned at their cards while hurtling toward an unforgiving atmosphere hours before. Even Shel’s normally stern face betrays the heightened stress that daylight brings.

“They know someone’s in this region for sure. And they’ll make it their business to find them.”

Before we set off from an outpost on Kilian IV, I had asked McCormick’s crew what would happen if we were caught. “Depends on who catches us,” they had all agreed with a knowing look around the table.

When they offered no more I had asked if any of them had ever been caught, and received a more raucous mirth at this question, though the alcohol again may have played into their reply. “Oh sure we’ve each been snatched up once or twice to be sure,” offered Jacoby, the ship’s navigator.

“But there’s ways around that. Most patrols have their price as long as you don’t piss them off.”

And if you manage to irritate them? A more serious reply this time, “Well that’s when it depends.”

“I’ve known only two that got pinched and didn’t feel much in the sharing mood, both within 3 months of each other,” the gunner offered up. Jacoby had tended to his drink and nodded in instant agreement.”

“I don’t right know what happened exactly because I never really heard from either one after.”

He continued with an explanation that the prison systems are a long way from Ten’s surface, and conjectured that they were either slaved out or “fed to the Sisters as ‘volunteer target recruits’.” A notion Jacoby had found chuckle-worthy but a jest not shared by the gunner or McCormick.

The gunner completed his thought. “Me? I wouldn’t be surprised if they just dunked them in Seven to watch their skin bubble off.” When Jacoby did not respond with any more amusement, possibly taking the belated cue from his captain, the conversation had returned to the planning and calculations of mass, thrust ratio fully loaded, and of course the cred split.

Back in the cavern the work progresses slowly. No reason to rush since we have all day to burn before attempting the evac.

The brothers continue to cut as much as they can from the steadily depleting vein. I was told early on that I would have neither access to their prospecting process nor any indication of what it was they were actually mining. From what I can see through the dust it drops to the ground as a dull-orange material similar in consistency to a copper shale, but it’s clear from the effort involved that it is much more valued than mere copper.

“It’ll pay,” is the most I’m allowed when the elder Conner is prompted, a wry smile creasing his dust-caked face. I’ve noticed his eyes darting to the two unopened crates unloaded with the cargo bins. “Not always easy to move, but it’ll pay to the tooth.”

[To Be Continued]

- Jackson Morrre is a veteran war correspondent and winner of two Furtherton Awards.

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