The rock was uncharted and unremarkable.  Seven kilometers of iron-nickel amalgam tumbling on its eccentric eons-old orbit against a backdrop of faint stars and pale hydrogen clouds.  The system's single faded, swollen sun was a distant speck among a myriad of others as the lump of ore and rock continued its endless path around the hub of the tired system.
          When the flare of actinic blue light washed across the pitted contours of the rock, the shadows from metal struts and towers reaching into space were thrown into harsh relief against the barren surface.  Again the light burned brighter than the bloated sun as clusters of ion thrusters fired, nudging the two-kilometer bulk of the miner ship Aspiration away from the asteroid.
          In the heart of the ship, Hayes finally relaxed, watching the rock recede through the glowing vector corridor superimposed on his viewpoint.
          "Command: exit."
          The view snapped off, replaced with the interior of a geodesic sphere, every facet labeled with an icon.  A wave of his hand and the scene became vague, transparent, overlaid with dayglo-green type: WAITING.
          He shucked the VR headset and rubbed at his eyes.  Kludge, but that antiquated hardware bugged him.  He'd been using the stuff for a lifetime and it was tough and reliable, but on the offside slow and cumbersome.  Newer systems utilized nano and bio tech: Microscopically small interfaces linked into the pilot's nervous system.  Just jack in and you ARE the ship; no more video and audio linkups.
          "Proximity one hundred and fifty kilometers," chimed the AI.  Well, the whole ship was old: over two centuries old.  An ancient Nakuma Corp. miner factory ship.  It'd been through several wrecks, a few minor wars, mothballing, and more repairs and refurbishments than an octogenarian entertainer.  From the outside it resembled an old-time oil rig that'd been put through a compactor and had other unhealthy things done to it: A cylinder just over two klicks in length, its exterior was an angular and lumpy landscape of shielding, heat exchangers, antenna and sensor arrays, power modules, thrusters, aux. cargo and equipment pods, locks, the grids of high-density gravimeters, and kilometers of piping.  Fully a half of that mass was filled with cargo holds while the rest was split between factory and ore processing, the power plant, and the drive modules.  On the whole vessel the only area intended for human habitation was the crew module; miniscule by comparison, its whiteness contrasting with the darkness of the rest of the miner, locked to the front of the vessel like a leech to a whale by the mechanical embrace of umbilicals and docking clamps.
          The crew of this two kilometer long mass of metal and ceramic was lounging back in his control couch, monitoring his vessel while nursing a bulb of chilled beer.
          Each of the windows in the main screen was displaying a different view or schematic.  160/+45 degrees to the rear the asteroid was growing visibly smaller, the refineries and furnaces on its surface already too small to be seen at that resolution.  This'd been a juicy system, with five class-four rocks in two months.  It didn't take long to drop a basic package on the face of an asteroid, but you had to wait and make sure the systems were running bug-free; also the Von Neumann servos needed the fusion plant and factory on the miner until their own power plants went on-line.  If necessary, stocks of deuterium, tritium, hydrogen, and helium were supplied from onboard stores.  When the process was well under way the miner would depart, either to search out new lodes or return to a Tincan for resupply, offloading and trading.  In a few months the ore-rich asteroids would fire up their own newly constructed plasma engines and stretch back to an inhabited system where the whole unit would be sold and slagged.  For a juicy profit, of course.
          Hayes flicked from one external monitor to another, scanning the exterior of the Aspiration.  Some shielding bore scratches from debris strike, otherwise it was in as good a condition as it was ever going to get.  Same story on a random scan of the interior.  Repair servos scuttled through conduits like glittering metal spiders.  In the holds the heavy mining servos had had their power packs removed and now were stacked in their bays, almost indistinguishable from the girders and piping and machinery around them.  The supply holds had been restocked; the hulking tanks of resources and reaction mass near-full.
          This last rock had been a profitable one.
          With the extraneous materials strained from the rock mantle, there was still a good core of iron, nickel, zinc, and copper.  Any company would pay good chits for this stake.
          Hayes leaned back and took a good draught then grinned.  Not far to go now and he'd have the installments paid off and he'd be running his own ship.  From there the next stop was a private business.  Christo, who knew: perhaps then on to a block back on terra, not some tincan or innertube.
          The AI chimed again: "Proximity one thousand kilometers.  Clearance.  Plasma drive initialized.  Systems check clearance, grids powered and chambers cleared.  Drive engaging."
          At the rear of the miner, in the power module, a star was squeezed, the magnetic envelope encasing it developing a deliberate flaw.  More fields seized the outflow, channelling it, accelerating it.  There was a subliminal rumble as massive vents to the rear of the vessel glowed, then spewed pulses of white-hot gas at close to seven percent C, jets that narrowed and focused in their magnetic fields until the battered cylinder seemed to be riding a nine kilometer long pencil of light.
          "Mass interference still critical.  Clear to stretch in thirty minutes."
          "Acknowledged," Hayes raised his bulb in the direction of the main screens.  "Thanks."
          "You're welcome."
          Most rock-hoppers changed their AI's voice, usually to that of a favourite vid star or singer, usually of the opposite sex.  Hayes had just stuck with the default one, a feminine alto.  He just had never gotten around to changing it, and the personality had grown on him.  Besides, it was an artificial intelligence, just a machine, not an artificial consciousness which could develop its own personality.  All the AIs were were glorified expert databases.  They could learn, but they simply mimicked a personality.  Artificial Consciousnesses on the other hand... ACs WERE conscious, alive and aware.  They were also heavily restricted: only the largest habitats and military ships used them.
          He finished the rest of the beer, belched, and picked up the headset again.  It smelt of sweat and age.  Familiar.  A wave of his hand and the WAITING prompt vanished.
          "Okay, Pan, course plot."
          It was a complex chart that appeared.  He was floating inside an arm of the galaxy, thousands of systems a multicoloured myriad of points around him.  A twitch of an eye and he zoomed in on his locale, outlined with a glowing three-dimensional recticle.  A word and the database conjured a web of colour-gradiated spheres around significant masses: the contour lines of the universe.
          It was virgin territory out here, skirting the edges of human exploration.  No matter how many billions; how many trillions of people there were, there were never enough to fill all the spaces.  Old Terra was the hub of human expansion.  It was from there that five hundred years ago with the advent of the Bausmer Breach that the first ships had exploded outwards.
          In the first two centuries over a thousand solar systems were colonised.  As mankind - humankind, whatever - finally got the keys to the car and left the home system behind, he spread everywhere.  Orbitals financed by every conceivable sort of organizations sprang up: the central governments and massive corporations were closely followed by sects, cults, and other fringe organizations seeking freedom.  So many of those small groups were hopelessly underfunded and underequipped.  They relied on chartered carriers to get them to their destination where they settled in tiny, primitive tincans with inadequate life-support and maybe a single surplus insystem workhorse for mining.  More than a few didn't make it.
          There were a lot of ghoststations out there.
          However, there were always other successes.  The mining corporation stations thrived as they specialised in refining the raw materials needed by everyone.  There were the agricultural innertubes with the monopolies on hydroponics, the Corporations producing technologies, others with biotech... the list ran on.
          Of course the Terran governments had seen these colonies as its own personal sweatshops.  It demanded taxes from wealthy, well-developed star systems that were totally self-sufficient.  Inevitably, as in colonial revolution centuries earlier, the fringe orbitals asked for, then demanded independence.
          Homeworld influence was strongest in the systems nearest Terra.  Nearly eighty percent of the orbitals were simply residential or administration, receiving their food, minerals, and luxuries from Terra, Mars, and the hundreds of other orbitals already in the Sol system.  There were watch stations and a strong military presence, but there was only so much territory they could cover.
          Wiser heads in the United Nations council realised that there was no possible way a single planetary system could dominate the infinity of space.  The fringe settlements had literally unlimited resources and personnel and trade embargoes were a ludicrous idea.  Declaring war was absolutely out of the question, so therefore the Terran government - privately reluctant - gave its blessing.
          It proved to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
          The colonies - the tincans and innertubes - began to yield surpluses of raw materials, pharmaceuticals, refined metals, zero-gee composites, and their own technology.  These they traded with the Terran zones, for luxuries and more technology, and the one exclusive thing the ancient Sol system possessed.
          In all the hundreds, the thousands of systems explored, only Terra had indigenous life.  Mars and parts of Venus could support humans without environment suits, but that was after centuries of extensive and expensive terraforming.  In all other solar systems from the Barnard Group out to the Salamander Pearls, mankind lived in sealed jars, hewing a living from dead worlds and the rubble of space.  There were few systems with planets in the habitable zone surrounding a sun.  There were fewer still where that planet was of an acceptable size.  Of these many had no atmosphere at all, or that atmosphere was of something interesting but lethal, such as compressed ammonia and methane.  Terraforming would take time on the best of these worlds, on the others... There were those who said it just wasn't worth the effort.
          Why be planet bound when you have a whole system in which to build?  Without the burden of gravity.  Tuck in behind an abundant gas giant and you have protection from solar flares and an inexhaustible supply of hydrocarbons and volatiles.  Drop a planet-breaker on a small moon and harvest the pieces for raw ore.  Use a linear accelerator to lob them across the system on ballistic orbits to be caught by processing stations that would churn out machinery, ships, and even more habitats.
          People could live just as well in an innertube or tincan, and they were far more comfortable than a planet.  Climatic control.  No rain, no wind, no need for housing.  No natural disasters.
          Build your colony inside a planetesimal with hundred-meter thick rock walls and a layer of collapsium plate and any meteorite large enough to do any damage would be vaporised or deflected by any halfway decent defence system.
          And there were always more systems.  For fifteen billion light years there were galaxies, each swimming with star systems.  And Mankind had scarcely scratched the surface of even his own spiral arm.
          Hayes was running calcs through the AI, scanning the chart files he'd bought from remote probes of this quadrant.  There were a few MO types within easy stretch, also some GO, but he was hunting the older ones, the swollen stellar geriatrics that'd had time to collect a retinue of debris.  A single BO, massing about ten solar masses was a likely candidate.  He swung the perspective into a schematic calculating distances, power consumption, stresses, and gravity flux and the AI spat out a course plot within a second.  It had definitely been worthwhile splurging to install the new system, a Yamaha AICPU-1263 unit.  Cascaded three-dimensional matrix processors and molecular memory modules.  Ten terabytes in a casing the size of his head and an access time of 3 nanoseconds.  It gave his old AI a great deal more raw storage space and enhanced the artificial personality with an expert system based on a 3M learning array model.  It was also able to interpolate the output of his clumsy and outdated General Equipment mass scanner, boosting the resolution, making stretches safer and more economical.
          Once the old Aspiration was finally paid off he'd be able to afford one of the new SolTech gravity scanners, boasting a resolution more than five hundred times greater than the old GE module.  With one of those he could skip into a system and do deep scans of a rock on the other side.  He could do a detailed survey of a system while still in stretch...
          But that was in the future.
          The chaos of woven lines and points of light surrounded him in a cocoon of light, a red line plotting a weaving course onto the next system, a good fifty light years out.  He moved his hand to touch a menu and a data screen came up.  A BO system, four planets, three of those gas giants the other one a rock.  ETA: three days.  Fuel consumption including initial boost: two hundred tons.  That was way within acceptable margins.
          "All right," Hayes said, nodding slightly.  "Lock that course."
          "Confirmed," acknowledged the AI.  Throughout the ship's superstructure the vibration of the engines changed as thrusters again nudged the vessel, lining it up with its launch window.  "Time to stretch point is approximately three hours."
          Hayes moved his hand to pop the interface, then hesitated and moved his hand to wipe the navigation charts and selected a main menu.  A few blinks of his eyes on subdirectories and music started, the primitive beat and strings of a new group from the Terra zone, Zacharea Codo according to the album label.  Now he punched the exit marker.
          He dropped the headset, leaving the visor hanging from its umbilical.  The main screen switched to an image of a tropical rainforest back on Terra, filling an entire wall with greenery and mist.  The music formed a lively background.  Humming along, Hayes descended the access tube to the living deck.
          The machinery in the walls was concealed by chitite panels of light tans and greens.  Floor to ceiling holorals gave an illusion of french windows looking out across a panorama of deep valleys and mountains.  Light came from glowpanels in the ceiling and walls, casting a soft light mimicking sunlight.  The floor was carpeted in a cream gengineered biograss, a horseshoe-shaped sunken area lined with gel cushions.  Around the rim were terrariums with heatlamps glowing on a multitude of flourishing plants.  Moisture beaded on the glass like droplets of sweat.  Two other doors led out; one to the galley, the other to the living quarters and the lift down to the service levels.
          Hayes made for the galley, brushing his hand along the plastic housing of a bonsai.  Over a century old, from old earth, the gem of his collection.  He'd have to clean the few dead leaves off the meticulously kept sand under the tiny tree.
          The galley lights coming on as he stepped through the door.  "Hey, Pan.  Break out a chicken, potatoes, and sweetpeas.  Also flour, bread, butter, cooking oil, and the spice rack."
          "Very well, Samuel." The voice came from all around as non-directional speakers vibrated the air of the room itself.  "How would you like it prepared?"
          "I don't," he said as he unfolded workbenches and a range.  "I'm doing it myself tonight."
          "All right," the AI said.  It took half a minute before the ingredients were delivered from the stores.  Cooking for himself made a welcome diversion from the monotony of shipboard routine, he also enjoyed it.  While the AI was a capable cook, it was by no means a chef.  Its food was good, but it lacked... flair.  Hayes enjoyed throwing on an apron and getting his hands dirty.  He had flash-frozen and vacuum-packed vegetables and fruit from habitat hydroponics, pro-ten meat substitute, as well as a huge range of flavouring and spices and ingredients.  After a day in a hardsuit taking core samples it relaxed him in the same way some others might wind down on a depstick.
          But unlike a drugstick you got something out of cooking.  Hayes called up a real external view and turned the lights off as he carried his meal through.  The infinite stars cast their cold light across him as he propped his feet up and worked his way through a synthetic drumstick.

          The plasma drives were finishing their burn.  After three hours the twin jets - each five times hotter than the surface of sol - were shutting down, but their nuclear ghosts lingered for minutes after.  The louvered vents of collapsium and ceramic alloy glowed with residual heat.
          Throughout the ship servos were skittering for the safety of charging ports where they clamped into place.  Bulkhead seals slammed into place.  Safety grids and nets locked over movable objects.  Power was shunted from unnecessary operations, valves were sealed.
          Like a spider in the centre of his web, Hayes watched as the VR updated and areas of the intricate wireframe schematic changed from amber to green.  Hayes moved through the structure, examining system after system.  There was a power drain from the faulty flexors on the third door in hold one and a slight loss of pressure in a steam duct, but both of those problems were negligible.  In fact the Aspiration was running smoother than she had for a long time.
          "Clear for stretch," the AI reported.
          There was a much larger power fluctuation as the fields went up, spinning a web of reality around the ship, then the drive grids ripped space open.
          Hayes hated this bit.
          The stars imploded into a single white burst.  Superstructure squealed before the fields compensated.  Hayes felt his stomach twist and an unbelievable headache flash behind his eyes.  The external monitors and viewports faded to black.
          Seen from outside, the Aspiration rippled, then without fanfare, sank into the universe.

          Theoretically, faster-than-light travel wasn't impossible.  Cracking the lightspeed barrier was.  The faster to C you got, the greater your mass became and the more energy you needed to accelerate and the greater your mass became... Ad Infinitum...
          E=MC² still ruled.
          Looking at it another way: as its velocity approached the speed of light, the mass of an object also increased, approaching infinity.  If you had a way to convert that mass to energy, you'd have an unlimited supply.  And if there was enough energy available - from the collision of two particles for example - it was possible to 'create' still more mass.
          So, again theoretically, a ship could be accelerated to near-lightspeed, but not beyond.  Still, even at those speeds travel between stars would be painfully slow and it was discovered that even at a crawl - say half-C - things like electrons and photons and especially neutrons started doing strange and unhealthy things.
          So a lot of people were extremely happy when it was proven that it was possible to circumvent that barrier.
          The Bausmer Breach went around space, ducking out of this level of existence, then in again.  The most that was generally understood about the process was that the drive sank a warp through the 'fabric' of space, opening a breach into a subuniverse existing on a lower energy level.  This subuniverse existed in the same area as the normal one, but within it space was distorted.  If it were possible to simply step into a breach and walk a few meters, you would emerge into real space several thousand kilometers from where you entered.
          A way of describing it was that universes existed like rings in an onion, with our universe as - it was supposed - the outermost skin.  To enter the subuniverse was to move deeper in directly towards the core.  Any movement made there would be equivalent to a much greater distance out on the surface.
          Of course it was impossible to simply walk in.  It took a ship and the power requirements of a small city to form the breach and maintain the shields needed to prevent the ship from being sucked into a local gravity well and first pulverised, then fused with already existing matter with somewhat more spectacular results.  Nature's way of 'Keeping Our Universe Beautiful'.
          Matter was not indigenous to the subuniverse.  There were no planets, moons, suns, space debris, or even the hydrogen so prevalent in the 'normal' level.  Light, when introduced in the form of navigation beacons on ships, crawled, the speed of light being several thousand times slower.  A ship at little more than twice 1G escape velocity was travelling at a significant percent of C in the subspace.
          So for three days the Aspiration would be coasting that void, in a sense being stretched out over an area of several light days.  It could be tricky when attempting to enter a busy system.  In such cases ships would drop out of stretch at navigation beacons and ride the rest of the way in on conventional drives.
          In the com couch Hayes unknotted his jaw muscles and tried to relax as the screens cleared again and the external pictures switched to the mass scanner images.  When in stretch the only ways to navigate were to either keep dropping out of stretch and taking a bearing in real space: a process hideously fuel-hungry, or to use mass scanners.  Like the hills and valleys on a contour map the gravity wells of suns, planets, moons, and planetesimals showed up.  A scanner would produce a three-dimensional map depicting the gravity sinks.
          These sinks were the reefs of stellar travel.  If a ship drifted too far into the gravitational sphere of influence it would be drawn in all the way to the core where it would drop back into real space... in the centre of a planet.  A quick - if very spectacular - way to go.
          But the screens were showing the course plot: a clear line through clear space.  Throughout the ship telltales read green.  There were a few sections where metal had been stressed, but already servos were working on it.
          "Okay, Pan," Hayes told the ship as he pulled the headset off.  "It's all yours."
          "Thank you, Samuel," the AI returned.  The lights of the bridge faded out behind him.

          Some found boredom a problem in singleships.  Hayes wasn't one of these; he'd always found something to keep him busy.  There were the CAD/CAM programs where he worked at redesigning and refining various servos.  Coupled with computer aided manufacturing facilities and a completely automated factory it let him design and build practically anything he could design himself or had the templates to.  There was a gymnasium, also both holieo and VR vids and games downloaded from his last port call at Tenington III, books, and music.
          There were his terrariums to tend to.  With classical music and freshener in the ventilation systems it was something he could lose himself in.  He also spent time in the galley, working through old recipes and inventing his own.
          The ship could run itself.  The servos carried out maintenance, even repairing themselves, all centrally controlled by subroutines in the AI.  So while in stretch there was really little for the pilot to do.
          Except when the computer came across something it couldn't handle.
          The alarm buzzed.  "Samuel, could you come to the bridge?" the AI requested in calm tones.  He was already on his way.
          The screens were lit when he entered.  There was too much red and it only took a glance to see what was wrong.  "Shit!  Where'd that come from?!"
          It was a system.  A whole kludging system and they'd skim well within its gravity sink.  Not a problem; just unexpected.
          "I don't have that information, Samuel," the AI said.  "The scanner just picked up a single planet.  The rest have only just appeared."
          Hayes sank down on the couch and stared at the monitor.  "There's nothing wrong with the scanner?"
          "No." A pause.  "All systems nominal."
          "That system WASN'T on the database?"
          "Then there was something interfering with the probe of this quadrant.  Where is that sonofa... Ah!" Hayes leaned forward and tapped at the monitor.  "How about a closeup here."
          The AI obliged.
          "Ah, okay.  Do a deep scan here, this sector... forty-five, seventy-three degrees."
          Outside, on the hull of the ship the seventy-meter antenna arrays pivoted and realigned themselves.  The streams of individual particles launched down the arrays could be deflected by the slightest fluctuation in a gravity field.  The computer registered this deflection.  From the ten-odd antennas it built up a map, at this range accurate to a few hundred kilometers.  Quite enough to map the major objects in a solar system and more accurate than the vastly higher resolution probes used at much greater distances by Survey.
          He found the problem.  It was on the maps as NSR 275.  A pulsar: a spinning neutron star of about six solar masses.  About as big as they come without going the one step further to black hole.  Probably drew the survey scope's attention so they forgot what they were supposed to be doing.  Also, the emission geyser from those things played merry fuck with all kinds of scanners.  "Christo, Pan, why didn't you compensate for this?"
          "There was no reason to suppose a system was there," replied the AI.
          Ah... Hayes shook his head.  If there was no ambiguous data to arouse its 'suspicions' then an AI wouldn't investigate further.  "Scheisskopf!  Pan, next time, triple-check any area with a high-density object for interference, okay?"
          "Logged, Samuel." The voice was as unperturbed as ever.
          Well, anyway, it was a whole unmapped system.  Interesting.  By the scan its star was at least the mass of a GO type, maybe slightly larger and brighter than the sun.  There was still some interference.  That damn pulsar again.
          Hayes leaned back and considered.  It was right on their course, so why not?
          "Pan, give me navigation," he said, already reaching for the headset.

          Whole sections were shut down as the generators pulsed again.  Jagged discharges of energy crackled around the stanchions bracing the field grids.
          Vibrations rang through the entire ship as space was twisted around it.  Gravity was warped into a hyperdense tube - an impossible black hole - then into a Klein bottle.
          Hayes felt the headache blossom again and his stomach twist, then the Aspiration broke into realspace.
          Stars rippled and were eclipsed as the bulk of the vessel solidified.
          Almost instantly the Aspiration rang like a gong, a 2.6 million tonne gong.  Klaxons began howling.  Bulkhead seals remained closed.  Strobes flashed red throughout the vessel.  In the VR interface a model of the ship appeared, the power module flashing red.
          "What the futz was that?!" Hayes screamed.
          "Collision impact in power module," the AI reported.  "There is oscillation in the fusion containment bottle.  Attempting to compensate.  Shields under heavy strain.  Increasing power to forward shields."
          "Collision?  That's impo..."
          Another strike rang against the ship, more muted this time.  Hayes swore and accessed external scan.
          Debris was everywhere: dust and rocks flaring past the shields.  A larger object struck, sending visible ripples running across the shields.  Those impacts, they would have been big pieces that got through.  There was a scar of molten metal and vitrified rock down the flank of his ship where the meteoroid had impacted with limited effect against the collapsium armour.  It looked impressive, but was superficial.  Hayes switched perspectives to see the power module.
          He stared.
          The starboard unit was all right, but the port...
          Armour plates were buckled, the superstructure beneath rent and twisted like string.  Despite the vacuum there were fires burning in there, along with the mist of escaping gasses.  Electrical sparks showered from shattered conduits.  The tiny motes that were repair servos scuttled around like ants defending their hive.
          Damage reports started coming through.
          The rock was inside the shields when the Aspiration had materialised, going the other way.  Their relative velocities were a good five percent the speed of light.  That in itself may not have been enough to breach the armour, but the combination of angle and velocity meant it struck an achilles heel.  A one in a billion chance.  It came in low and fast, striking a hatchway, fireballing into the power module in a blast that split the module open like an overripe fruit, taking with it the port stabiliser for the fusion reactor bottle along with the backup.
          The main fusion reactor!  Without that stabiliser the bottle would break up.  The other five could only hold it so long and despite the AI's efforts it was already beginning to oscillate wildly.  Alarms and red lights blinked up right across the board, screens flashing options and readouts until Hayes shut them down.
          Without the main power plant he'd have to fall back on the backup plasma containment units in the command module and factory areas, but there was no way they could supply sustained power.  And there was no way he could stretch out of here safely.
          Indicators were stretching up into the red.  More alarms joined the klaxons.  In the power module the housing for the fusion bottle glowed from the heat escaping the weakened containment field.  Servos scurried around madly as the system tried desperately to repair the assembly.  A gout of white heat erupted from the star in the centre of the reactor, fusing metal and spewing out into space.
          Even over the artificial gravity Hayes felt the ship yaw in reaction to the blast.  Alarms raved anew.
          "Jettison!" Hayes snapped.  "Blow the unit!" But the AI was seconds ahead of him.  Explosive bolts detonated.  Fragments of metal sprayed out into space as corridors, girders, conduits, cabling and fibrelines were severed.  Umbilicals and massive gantry clamps shifted, locking bolts retracting or being shorn away.  In a flash of flame the stern began to drift away.  A hundred thousand tons of titanium/ceramic alloy, collapsium plate, and steel ponderously separated from the rest of the Aspiration: the heart torn out of the monolith.  The distance between them increased, slowly at first, but picking up speed.  When it left the lee of the Aspiration the debris began impacting on it.  It had little effect on the outer shell, but inevitably dust struck the exposed guts.  Sparkles of light flared where kinetic energy was converted to light and heat and globules of metal.
          In the VR the telemetry from the engine module flashed red at the peak of its graph.  CONTAINMENT FIELD COLLAPSE: 97%
          A sun-hot gout of liquid gasses vented from a segment of the module, setting it tumbling like a gargantuan catherine wheel.
          "Bring rear shields to max," Hayes snapped.
          "With foward shields functioning there is insuffi..."
          "Then CUT the forwards!  NOW!"
          The hull could take it... he hoped.  Provided nothing too big met him coming the other way.  Even as he hoped the sounds of rock meeting metal penetrated from the distant hull.  The field meters for the rear screens were up in the green.
          On the rear screens the tiny point that was the power module turned into a star, then into a sun, then into a glare that filled the whole screen.
          The sleet of radiation hit first.  A wash of heat, light, electromagnetic, and hard radiation washed across the Aspiration, slipping around the screens like water off a frictionless globe.  Without the shields that deluge alone would have shorted all inadequately shielded circuitry in the Aspiration, and there was enough of that floating around back there.  In the control module he was probably safe, but he wasn't taking any chances.
          The shockwave was lagging behind, seconds behind the radiation.  The spherical wavefront of expanding gasses and space debris burst past the Aspiration, rocking the vehicle even through the shielding.  Solid particles struck the fields, energy flaring out like raindrops on a pond.
          Then the blast was past.  The remnants of the short-lived sun dying into a red glow that slowly dissipated in the monitors.
          "Default shields," Hayes ordered, then sagged.  "Mother of Mary.  Damage report."
          A window flashed up on the screen and a list began scrolling down.  There were too many to list vocally, even visually the list seemed to go on for a long time.  Even the survey module had taken a battering.  Without the shields the whole forward section had been sandblasted by debris, effectively taking out the forward optical array.  He'd lost the primary optical scope as well as a couple of low gain antenna and camera arrays: scoured away by the dust.  It wasn't too bad a drawback: he could still use the mainship's optical assemblies.  Perhaps they were old and didn't have quite the res, but they would suffice.
          He was still sorting through the red-highlighted items in the list when the AI chimed, reporting a change in the exterior conditions: "External debris has reduced sixty three percent."
          Sure enough the sound of dust whispering on the hull had abated.  Hayes swung the heavily shielded old opticals on the mainship to face forward.  Illumination from running lights reflected from the occasional fleck or rock, but besides that there was nothing.  Hayes cut the outside lamps.
          A single star glowed in the distance.  A step up in the gain showed a couple more faint ones beyond it.  Likely planets, reflecting sunlight.  There were none of the other stars that should be visible.
          The whole system was tucked away inside a dust cloud!
          It was the only explanation.  That was why the scanner probes had been so unreliable.  That was why no stars were visible from here.
          Ha!  He leaned back in the couch, the gel contouring to his every move.  He could make a profit out of this astronomical anomaly.  Single systems in a clear bubble inside a dust cloud weren't common.  There was bound to be some research group interested in this, or a Corporation.  If you could find a safe route in and out of here, it would be a great place to build in.  Clear a single channel and defending it would be a cinch.
          The interface opened and he powered the chair up to see the main screen.  Despite the ventilation in the interface, it seemed stifling.  He plucked a bulb of beer from the seat's cooler and snapped the top.  So he could turn a profit here.
          Provided he could ever get out.
          Power was okay for the moment.  The Plasma Containment Units were still well charged.  It was enough to use ion thrusters; sparingly.  With the plasma drive gone, he had to find some other way to dump velocity.
          "Pan, can you get a good scan of this system?"
          "Yes.  There are eight planets.  The outermost two are small Neptune-type ice worlds.  Infrared probes of the nearest shows an atmosphere of methane-ice."
          A computer enhanced graphic of a blue, cold-looking sphere rotated on the screens.  Spectroanalysis charts scrolled across the screen.  There were trace elements, but not detectable in large amounts.
          "The next three are gas giants of varying mass, none larger than Jupiter.  The outermost two have debris rings spiralling out to the dust cloud.  I recommend further investigation of these in respect to repairs."
          Hayes blinked at the screen.  Planets with leashes leading out into space.  He had a go at the orbital mechanics involved, then gave up.  It would take years by hand.
          The analysis of these was more promising, but those rings made them risky for what he had in mind.
          The next two were better.  Both were rocks, the outermost with two moonlets and a small cloud of large asteroids, the innermost with none.  However only the outermost one would be in the right position anytime in the next eight months.
          The second planet from the sun was looking much better.  Of slightly less than Earth mass, with an atmosphere, three moons and coming into line nicely with the outermost Rock.  It was... Hayes blinked and leaned forward to do a double-take of the data.  Distance from sun: one hundred and seventy nine million... It was well within the habitable belt.
          A prime candidate for terraforming.
          Now he had all the reason more to get back to civilization.  A system with a world that could possibly be terraformed would make his fortune.  He could stake his claim and name his price.  A new ship, new equipment, state of the art stuff.  He could float a private enterprise!
          But first he needed a good look at that planet.  From halfway across the system the data he could collect was limited.  From closer in, or with the planet eclipsing the sun, he would be able to get a spectrography of the atmosphere.  The ships optics were old, but they were enough to obtain infra-red, UV, and detailed spectrographies.  The AI could collate this, compare differences in direct solar radiations and the reflections from planetary atmospheres.  It could produce a full spectrum breakdown of an atmosphere, from 300 to 800 nanometers.  Certain elements would absorb certain wavelengths, producing blank absorption lines in the spectrum.  It was a simple, cheap, and effective procedure, used for centuries, but of course the closer you were, the more accurate it was.
          The Aspiration had the velocity to make the centre of the system in a matter of days, the problem would be stopping.  However, even without the main engines there were still options open.
          Hayes leaned forward to study the screen, scratching at his ear.  "Do we have enough juice in the PCUs for orbital insertion around the second planet?"
          "Yes, but it would require using plasma from the refinery reserves."
          "How would that affect repairs?"
          "The smallest moon has standard gravity of .32 standard.  There would be insufficient fuel to soft-land the processing servos and initiate mining operations."
          "Okay.  What about the fourth planet.  If we went into an elliptical orbit around that and went after the rocks around there, would there be fuel left over?"
          "If a broad elliptical orbit was used: yes, it would save a great deal more mass."
          That should be close enough for a good reading.  On impulse he asked, "Would there be enough to send the command module on to the second planet while the main body proceeded with repairs?"
          "If the module was launched en route on an unpowered ballistic intercept trajectory, there would be enough.  The module has ample charge to maneuver to a standard orbit.  Charge would be insufficient to return to mainship."
          Hayes nodded.  "Alright, make the course correction needed to get us to the fourth planet.  I'll let you know if I want to separate the comm module."

          The corridor ended abruptly, dropping away into black infinity in all directions.  Titanium, SpunSteel, synthetic and collapsium forests of twisted decking and beams stretched out toward the dark.  Fiberoptic cables sparkled and threw pinpoints of multicolored laserlight against jet metal.  Stanchions and umbilicals that had deliberately severed to jettison the power module strobed warning lights.
          A faint jet of escaping oxy misted the vacuum before boiling away.
          Somewhere an electrical source was arcing out, throwing a harsh glare against cold metal like distant lightning reflecting from stormclouds.  Every time it flashed it threw a snap of static through Hayes' headset.
          The Agie plates in this sector were out.  He floated fifty meters or so away from the ship, his line stickywadded to a wall.  The twin beams from the worklamps mounted on his shoulder harness played across the kiblitzed rear of his ship.  It looked like a demolished section of apartment building: huge, with the naked interior exposed.
          He'd spent the best of a day surveying the damage.  The ship was able to handle situations like this; it was the reason it had been designed in modular sections.  If that fusion plant had blown before he'd ejected it, the damage would have been a fair bit worse.  Perhaps some of the collapsium plating of the outer hull would have survived, but it would have been an empty husk drifting forever.  He sighed into the helmet of his hardsuit, then double-blinked at the glowing green icon that began reeling the suit in again.  The winch located where the suit's navel would be began winding on braided molecular fibre.
          It would take a LONG time to repair and replace this.  A suitable rock or rocks would have to be found.  Mining servos would have to land, excavate ore and fissionables, construct processors and begin processing, then shuttle it to the ship.  If there was insufficient power, the Factory would have to build makeshift fission plants, use them to jumpstart a fusion plant to power the operations.
          Once power was secured, the work would proceed rapidly.  Part of the factory would produce more servos that'd seek out another asteroid and begin work there, changing its orbit if need be to make it more accessible.  This process would repeat until there could be a dozen asteroids swarming around the mining vessel.  Automated factories would start churning out the material necessary for the rebuilding of the vessel.
          There was a faint shock as he hit, the bright red hardsuit's powered limbs absorbing almost all of the impact.  Impulse jets in the suit pulsed gas and he drifted toward the mass of grey metal and yellow and black warning legends that was the bulkhead lock.  "Hey, Pan!  Open Sesame."
          The lock swung open.
          That was the advantage with the old model AIs he mused.  They were cheap, well-tested, and they'd usually picked up an incredible database of miscellaneous vernacular.
          The lock sealed with a heavy thud he felt through the suit.  Atmosphere and gravity came up to standard.  The inner hatch cycled and he popped the seal on the faceplate.  External noises and smells flooded in: the groan of the life-support, burnt insulation, the clattering as unseen servos laboured on whatever repairs could be done.  The deck grids rang under the three hundred and fifty kilo suit as Hayes walked back to the main external hatch.  He had to duck in places: these areas of the ship weren't built to accommodate the bulk of a hardsuit.
          "Not to good," he sighed.  "Any estimates on how long its going to take to rebuild?"
          The Aspiration's AI's reply was echoed through both the ship intercom and the suit's.  "With optimum conditions my estimate is thirty months."
          Great!  Futzing Great!  Optimum conditions.  Well, Murphy still ruled, so give it thirty six months, perhaps more.  Three years orbiting a dead rock, digging away without even turning a profit.  Kludge take it!  He had expenses.
          Well, there was a choice he mused as he backed the suit into its bay and the clamps took hold.  He fumbled after the safety releases and popped them, then keyed in the sequence on the arm pad.  Hermetic seals hissed as they depressurized and the upper chest shell swung open.
          He didn't have to hang around.  The ship was quite capable of carrying on with mining procedures by itself.  He could go on and check out that planet in the comm module.  It was only a few weeks away.  All he'd have to do would be to break away from the main body and make a classic Hohmann transfer to the Second, then insert into a loose elliptical orbit.  That'd let the AI get some good mapping shots and all the data he'd need to stake a claim.  He could sleep the transfer out in a slowsleep and be awoken by the AI to take a look at his motherlode.
          Hayes caught hold of the sweat-stained, chamois-lined hand grips above the suit and hauled himself out of the shell.  The suit sagged into the clamps and standby beads began to glow on the limbs and around the faceplate rim.  With no one inside it, the hardsuit was a hulking inanimate red shell of composite laminate.  Hayes made a final check of the status panel on the wrist, then started back to the comm module.
          "Yes, Samuel?"
          "Get the comm module prepped for separation and plot the most fuel-efficient approach to the second planet.  Transfer the necessary fuel and allow an eight percent safety margin." He ducked through a hatch and slid down a ladder.  "Yeah, also get the med unit in my quarters ready.  I'm going to sleep this one out."
          "Acknowledged," the AI said.
          "Do you see any problems?"
          "There is a great deal of debris in this system.  The command module's shields could be overtaxed by a large strike."
          "What're the odds?"
          "Approximately two to the seventh against."
          Hayes shrugged and stepped aside to dodge a spider-like servo scuttling along the corridor, it's legs clattering against the deck grating.  "I can live with that.  Go ahead.  Oh," he stopped and tapped his jaw.  "Would there be enough fuel for a controlled landing?"
          "Unknown," the AI said.  "Course alterations enroute may be required.  Fuel will be required for orbital maneuvering systems.  Basic life support requires minimal amounts.  Maintenance requires one point seven kilowatts.
          "In an emergency the module is capable of an unpowered landing.  However the module has sustained damage.  Avionics have been compromised and there is a chance of further damage, perhaps destruction of the module.  Return to orbit would be impossible until the mainship arrived to ferry fuel, which would necessitate the construction of at least one lander."
          "Just asking," said Hayes.  The main lift was located in a storage bay.  The battered bins around the walls were crammed with junk, working and nonfunctional parts.  There was a status panel with too many lights burning amber.  The elevator's doors rumbled open when Hayes palmed the call button, then closed behind him with a hollow clang and the hiss of a vacuum seal.  The lift was designed to carry thirty ton mining servos: it dwarfed a single human.  When the mechanism began moving upwards there was a slight lurch as the agies compensated and a vibration felt through the feet.  It should've been completely smooth: there must have been some damage to the superconducting magnetic bearings.
          "Pan, how long until the launch window opens?"
          "Four days and seventeen hours."
          "Okay, that gives me time to work out a shopping list.  Anything you need."
          "A gravitic and magnetic compression fusion power core and multistaged reactor system.  Preferably a Nikoma 270."
          Hayes sighed.  "I was joking, Pan."
          "So was I."
          Hayes shook his head.  Where'd it got that response from?  Some of its previous owners must have been real exotics.

          Four days gone.
          Hayes tugged off his boots and stowed them then sat on the bunk, propped elbows upon knees and rubbed his eyes, carrying his fingers up and through his hair.  His quarters were secured: the desk clamped down, bookcase doors closed and sealed.  He'd triple checked the plants in the terrariums and assigned a couple of servos to look after them.  He'd done everything he could; the AI would take care of the rest.
          With a sigh he lay back on the bunk watching the lights dim to a pale imitation of twilight.  A small hatch in the wall on his right slid silently open and a segmented metal arm unfolded.  When it touched his right arm it felt cold, then the cold was all over his body.
          Status beads blinked gently to themselves in the dark room.  A single monitor displayed the vital signs of the motionless figure on the bunk, but there was nobody to read it.  With a gentle whine the padded bars of the safety restraint closed over the bunk.
          The part of the AI watching over Hayes was vigilant and eternally patient.  It would never leave the bunkside, but the rest of it had other work to do.

          Attitude jets fired and with the ponderous grace of a pregnant whale, the Aspiration rolled along its Z axis.  Heavy mechanical noises sounded through the pressurized sections of the hull as huge clamps and umbilicals retracted.  Puffs of atmosphere jetted into space, glittering in the pale light of a distant sun filtered through seven hundred million kilometers of dust.
          Almost delicately for an object massing over three thousand tons the sharp-angled elongated wedge that was the command module eased away from its enveloping nest of metals and ceramics.  Seen from inside the module, the main ship would have been a twisted landscape of cold metal hanging impossibly overhead.  Against that dark hull, the whiteness of the command module was a stark contrast.
          A flattened white wedge the size of an ancient seagoing destroyer.  Engine vents were scorched black.  Its dorsal tower ran from amidships to the stern and was a change from the smooth metal that the rest of the hull consisted of, instead being covered with the pipes and gantries of umbilicals, antenna arrays, docking clamps, and access tubes.
          There was a series of blue flashes as the ion maneuvering units pulsed.  Rapidly the distance between the two vehicles increased as their courses diverged.  A single, long, fuel-hungry burn from the module's thrusters then the engines fell quiescent, not to be used again until the final days of its voyage.  The only sound inside was the soft whisper of dust against the shields.
          In both vessels the presence of the AI maintained a constant vigil.  It wasn't difficult for it to duplicate its functions and store a copy in each vessel, but the primary backups still resided in the command module.  The duplicate in the mainship was slightly slower, because of its smaller memory, dumber, simply because it didn't have the hardware available in the module.  Nevertheless, it was still quite capable of doing its job.  A pulsed gravity tightbeam of binary bursts linked the two vessels, a system that didn't suffer from the time-lag posed by standard radio, but like the stretch drive, it couldn't be used near any object of great mass.  If the mainship encountered a problem it couldn't handle by itself, the module could download a section of memory to help it.
          But for the next few weeks the only problem likely to be posed came from stray rocks.  Until something happened, the machine/s were content to watch over and maintain their dark vessels, deserted of organics, only the multitudes of servos scurrying about their mechanical ways.

End Godsend part 1