To Boldly Go To Where No Avatar Has Gone Before

“Gwyneth,” Commander Au said to me, twirling his moustache behind the floating desk at HQ. “We have, uh… an issue.”

I dropped the pad on my lap and looked up to him. His mischievous smile was getting on my nerves. Sighing, I scratched my head, and mumbled: “What issue?”

“Well, the guys at the old asteroid mining station in Epsilon Eridani told HQ that production has dropped dramatically. We don’t know why, but we suspect the worst. It could be only laziness. It could be something unleashed in those tunnels — a new form of radiation, a biohazard, who knows. That mine is old, Gwyn. They’ve been working at it for centuries. Eons. Who knows what’s down there… Well, it’s your assignment. Talk to the locals. Get clues from them. There is a bar or diner on the mine, see what people are saying. The CEO of the mining operation fears a strike or even worse.”

I thought what would be “worse than a strike”. Come on, boss, this is an asteroid mine! What possibly can go wrong there, except someone dropping a charge and blowing themselves up by mistake?

Nevertheless, I saluted (which got a chuckle from Au), grabbed the pad, and, shoulders dropping, went to the Quartermaster to pick up my old suit. Time to get the old, rusty Spacebug ready.

“Llewelyn here, requesting permission to jump through.” I punched the comms button and waited for Neva to reply. As usual, he was muttering something about “these rookies that think they own the universe”, and barely managed to conceal his disdain about them. But that was ok. I was used to him; deep inside, he loved his job as stargate controller, and he was not that bad as people painted him.

“Come on, Prok, it’s Gwyn… let me through, please. There is nobody around but the cargo vessel.”

“Always in a hurry, you guys are. Think you own the Universe, huh? Well, you’re wrong. You don’t think you can get in front of everybody just because you’re Space Patrol. You’ll wait like everybody does,” he rambled on, warming up. I could almost see his smile, but the video was off, so I just imagined his expression. “The cargo vessel goes through first. Interstellar trade is more important than anything else. They have priority. But I guess that you fascist patrollers think otherwise, huh?”

“Whatever, Prok, I’m not arguing with you.” I sighed. And waited. But at last, after an hour or so, with a chuckle, Neva cleared me to jump.

I never liked those jumps. Sure, we all learn at school how the strange physics with wormholes actually work, and how they’re the most natural thing in the universe — if you do the math right. Well, I never trusted my math, and in my dreams, I always imagine that the universe is going to completely blow up and get all out of proportion, like this:

Ugh. No. Definitely not something to be thinking about. I hoped that Neva got his math right (he usually does) and delivered me safely to Epsilon Eridani.

“Patroller Llewelyn to Mining Complex, request clearance to land.” I pushed the blinking comms button. Nino, the manager, was already tracking me — I saw her signature on the radar. That was good. Nino’s ok — calm, wise, and knows everything and everybody. I asked her to meet me at the diner, a level below the landing pads.

She greeted me with her always friendly smile. My old suit felt clunky, dirty and old, compared to her lovely deep blue Victorian dress, which she always wore on special occasions. I noticed a touch of formality there — we were friends for ages, when we worked together on those complex cases about interstellar fraud and she did the heavy number-crunching proving that someone was drawing insane amounts of credits from the economy. Commander Au was delighted at that time. Why Tateru Nino picked up this desolate spot to work was anyone’s guess — I never asked. She had her reasons, and I respected those.

“Hi Tats! How’s the mining?”

She just smiled at that. “Glad to see you again, Gwyn. Well, I guess you’re not here for tourism.”

Nino always looked through me. I frowned. “Well, Au told me that there are some troubles on the old mines…”

“Not really ‘troubles'”. She scratched her chin; I knew that meant she was going to enter her ‘lecturing mode’. She always did that — even in her days as teacher at the Tau Ceti University. Old habits die hard. “Just, well, strange happenings. The robots on the mining sites misbehave. The people going down for repairs come back with hallucinations. But they take a few days of rest — the medscans never show up anything — and they are fine as before. This has been going on for weeks. It’s not really worrying. But I suppose that productivity has dropped a notch or two.” She showed me her pad, full of statistics and charts and graphs. Sure thing, the mining operation was a bit down. Well, only Nino would have found it out, or Professor Charming from our own statistics team. But if both worried about it, Au would worry, too.

I briefly explained I wanted to have a look. By myself. Nino warned me to take care and keep in touch. “I’d hug you, dear, but not on that rusty suit… make sure you get Mera to check you up first before you go down there.”

Shrugging, I complied. And then, it was back to the Spacebug, load the coordinates into SignpostMarv Martin’s incredibly complex tracking software, and pick the right asteroid where the first mine was.

A navigational nightmare! Epsilon Eridani has almost no planets, it’s all clumps of asteroids all over the place. Sure, a few are big enough to be called “planets”, but, well, it was at times like this that I always told myself I should have played more videogames when I was a kid. The cadets these days just love flying around asteroids. I don’t. I hate it, I get nervous with all those blips on the radar…

But finally the time came to approach the mine I’ve picked to check up first. Au had told me this was the first one where they registered a drop in production. First I’d do a quick flyover and check for the many entrances. I launched the scanning routine, looking for radiation, energy leaks, even gas or water that might be vaporised into outer space.

Nothing. Everything looked well from the outside. Of course, the rocks can shield a lot of what’s going beneath them, so I had no choice but to check my helmet and land on the surface.

The trouble with those robot mines is that nobody is around to greet you — almost everything is remotely controlled. Humans only come here for maintenance mostly. My scanner did not show any human being around. Well, Gwyn, I told myself, there is no other way but to go down the tunnels.

It was clear from the looks that this was abandoned in a hurry. Things were floating wildly around, although even the microgravity of the asteroid made some papers stick to the ground… Well, the mine had power, the doors were mostly working, the generators were humming… but, no clues on why this was abandoned. I checked my scanners: no lifeforms around. I was unarmed (Au never trusted me with a gun, and this was just an information-gathering mission anyway), so I made sure that Nino got my feeble signal through all those rocks if something really happened to me, and walked around the dimly lit tunnels.

There was noise ahead… mining was going on.

“Hi, carbon unit.” The metallic voice of one of the mining robots greeted me. Well, at least this guy was working.

“Hi there… is anybody around?”

The robot never stopped mining while he made the equivalent of a shrug. “No idea, carbon unit. I just keep on doing my job.”

“Sure, that’s ok… mind if I take a probe?” The robot complied, and I plugged my pad into its port, downloading all the data for a full dump. Maybe Morgaine Dinova and Extropia DaSilva, our robotic engineers, could make any sense out of it. I had no clues on what was going on.

I walked around for a few hours. There were a few more robots around, no humans though. The mine was still being used here and there. Production did not stop, it was just at an absolute minimum. Why? I frowned behind my helmet. There was certainly something going around here, but I had no idea of what it is.

It was time to talk to Nino again. Au wouldn’t be happy — my mission was mostly a failure so far.

All pictures above are from the amazing Privateer Space sim, built single-handedly by the immensely talented Aley Arai. 

More reviews on Privateer Space can be found here:

Many many thanks to Aley to do this fantastic sim which certainly made me dream 🙂 and spend over an hour to see perhaps a tiny fraction of it. Thanks to my friends who insisted that I should spend some time exploring it — they were right, this was one of the most fun experiences I had in SL since the old Numbakulla sim went life 🙂

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