by Roger Bourke White, Jr., copyright Nov 2007
The three HX fragments found in the Solar System aided enormously to humanity's civilization and space traveling skills of the time, but they were just that: fragments, and millions-of-years-old fragments at that. But, paltry as they were by later standards, they provided enough material and inspiration that mankind developed constant acceleration starships that could voyage to Alpha Centuri and back.
But there was more HX magic to come! Much More! Earth scientists... I should say Solar System scientists, found the Altair Fragment, and when Solar System ships visited it, it was found to be an entire HX skeleton, not just fragments! And... it was still being looted -- mankind had his first encounter with live aliens!
The first ship back from the Altair Fragment was captained by Aniston Jonas, and he brought back a truly wonderous treasure, a large HX battery. That battery provided so much cheap electricity that mankind could settle twenty five million people under the Greenland ice sheet without causing any additional global warming. Those Greenland cities became the most desired real estate on Earth.
Aniston Jonas told the story of his adventures at the Altair Fragment, and became a Solar System hero. He told how he had dodged through a swarm of hostile alien ships surrounding the skeleton and actually landed on the HX, then scouted its interior and found the battery, and finally battled his way out and back to the Solar System. One sign of his heroship was he had schools in every part of the Solar System named after him.
But there were a few people who were uncomfortable with the Aniston Jonas story. When Aniston died, one of them started talking. What comes next is Albert Musso's story.
The rest home did not look like a rest home because it wasn't one. It was the Carrefour Hotel, the finest in Titan Colony. Albert Musso didn't look like an ancient man, either. He seemed as vigorous as a twenty year old as he walked to the table in the garden. His eyes seemed sharp and his voice clear. But, I was warned, his vigor was an illusion. He fatigued easily these days, and when he wasn't in the public eye, he was plugged into a room full of life support systems. He was, sadly, truly an old man.
We greeted, he sat down, and the interview began....
I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I was captain of the tenth ship to get to the Altair HX skeleton, not the first, but I think I still have an interesting story to tell you.
And, this story is more than a story. It's a burden that I've carried for too long. I feel that a terrible wrong happened long ago, and telling this story may now partly right that wrong. Now that Aniston Jonas is dead, perhaps I can do something to help correct a terrible mistake that is being told about that first Altair Fragment voyage.
It's true that Aniston Jonas was the lucky one on that voyage, he got the battery. But he wasn't the one who figured out how to get us humans more. That honor goes to Henry Osmore.
Yes, that Henry Osmore, The Coward Henry Osmore. The one who, the current story goes, wouldn't take a chance on anything. The one that Jonas and Jack Carrack have been badmouthing ever since they got back from that first voyage.
And that's wrong, I tell you, FLAT-ASS WRONG! It's wrong because what we learned from Henry Osmore was so valuable. I'm here now because I read and listened to every word Osmore sent out. My God! How valuable! It was Osmore's work, not Jonas', that laid the foundation for modern HX exploiting.
I'm talking to you now because it's time Osmore got his just desserts, his own honor, and, now that Jonas is dead, it may happen. After you get done talking with me, you should go talk to the real hero of the Altair Fragment and HX exploiting, Henry Osmore.
You're young. You have no idea how uncertain space exploration was before the first HX discovery. We were using boost-and-coast rocket technology back then. A trip to Pluto took years, not weeks, and The Belt was a lonely place inhabited by a truly strange breed of humankind. Elias Jonas, for instance, was not only phenomenally lucky, he was delusional. Before he struck it rich, it was a toss-up between letting him lose to become a Belter and locking him up in an asylum on Earth. But... we live in a prosperous society, and his folks chose to finance his wild ideas... and he got lucky. The first asteroid he explored was not only the valuable nickel-iron type that everyone predicted it would be, it had thick veins of gold in it, too... solid, precious, gold. That was a surprise, and gold has such a hold on people's imaginations that finding it got the whole world interested in Belt prospecting, and Jonas became the world's richest man for a while.
John Burnmeshorts was a generation later. He was lucky enough at his own prospecting that he could pay for his own chance at being once-in-a-lifetime lucky... and he was lucky... both ways... his good luck was he found the first Sol HX fragment -- what he called the Honeycomb Comet -- his bad luck was he died to a million-year old booby trap on his second voyage exploring it.
We found the Altair Fragment, and exploited it, because of what we gained from the Sol fragments. Never forget that! Mankind gains when he risks. He loses, too, but he only gains big when he risks big.
We found the Altair Fragment because we detected propulsion systems. We knew there was life in that empty spot in space before we knew there was anything HX there. We deduced that the reason for life in that one spot between the stars was the existence of an HX fragment, and we also deduced that it would be a whole lot richer than the Sol Fragments, just because there was still life around it. After that, it was a contest between altruism and greed as to who would control our first flight there. And, as it was after Columbus discovered America, both played their part.
Jonas got the first ship. Being a member of the "Lucky" Jonas family, he played his name to the hilt. He got Number One ship, and his cohort-in-crime, Jack Carrack, got Number Two. Carrack, not Osmore, got the second. Osmore was the XO. Carrack got the ship because he was one hell of a politician, not one hell of a ship's captain. Even before his stroke, even before they left, there was muttering and grumbling among the crew. Carrack would make hasty choices, and about half of them were bad. Osmore was made the XO because he was a real ship captain. In fact, Osmore was the captain's captain: smart, tough and no-nonsense, but people forget that. Instead they are distracted by the horror of the near-mutiny.
But, I'm back here, talking to you, because of what Osmore did, not because of what Jonas did. Jonas was a cowboy. You wouldn't be talking to me, or Jonas, if Osmore hadn't done his part.
And that's why I'm willing to talk to you now: because Osmore needs a break. If you don't understand that we can discontinue this conversation, right now!
And, speaking of breaks, it's lunch time for me, then nap time. Why don't you come back tomorrow.
There you are! Are you feeling better today? Let's see... where were we... Ah!
One of the fallouts of finding Burnmeshorts' "Honeycomb Comet" was an astronomy boom. Not only were people more interested, and willing to spend more money, some of the HX technology found on the Sol fragments made telescopes better.
The new telescopes discovered that propulsion technology was being used in a small spot of deep space between Sol and Altair. With further study, it was determined that many kinds of propulsion systems were being used there, not just one. Why would a bunch of space ships be jetting around a small area of interstellar space? The answer we all thought of: it's an HX fragment, or ship... only a new one! -- not a millions-of-years-old crumb of a piece, like the Sol fragments!
Once we -- we being us humans living around Sol and Alpha Centuri -- realized this, we wanted our piece of the action, too! Well... some of us did. Some of us were deadly opposed to exploring it. It was the old, "This stuff is deadly dangerous and if we mess around we'll get badly burned."-argument that comes up every time we humans find a new piece of the HX puzzle.
It gets old, but it has to get answered, each time, and that's where politics grows thick. In the first wave three ships were sent, each representing a different section of the Solar System. Sounds nice, but the three were supposed to be a team, too. But instead of picking a team based on previous teaming experience, we picked a team based on popularity with constituents. Oh yes, I was one of the team, too. But, coming from The Belt, I at least had the sense to expect surprises.
Jonas got selected on his name. He was Earth's representative, of all places! But, then again, what other name did Earthlings know from the "beyond Mars" region?
It was Carrack who got Jonas in as Earth ship captain... Mercury ship, technically, because the xenophobe parties on Earth were strong enough to keep Earth's name off any ship going to an HX... and then Jonas got Carrack in as Mars ship captain. Mandalay got the Belt ship.
Getting Carrack in as Mars ship captain took a lot of arm twisting by some very powerful people, as well as Jonas' support. And when the Carrack boosters were done, there were a lot of other powerful people who were unhappy with the choice. These unhappy ones voted with their pocketbooks, and the Mars ship was plagued with low community support, low funding, and corruption. Support was so low, the ship was delayed a full year. The other two ships launched on schedule, and then it launched a year later and caught up. It's ironic, but we were learning so fast that the year delay let the Mars ship become a higher performance ship than the other two when it did launch.
All three were completed, and the three ships -- Mars, Belt and Mercury (Earth) -- headed for the Altair Mystery, as it was called then, fifteen light-years away. Keep in mind that I wasn't on any of these first wave ships. I was in the second wave that was launched fifteen years later. The first wave was three ships, the second wave was ten ships -- we had learned a lot in those fifteen years, so the ships of the second wave were both better and cheaper to build.
The first wave ships were constructed to fly at .7G. Our second wave ships could maintain a full 1G. The first wave ships took seventeen years to get to the Altair fragment, measured by planetary time. Our ships took almost seventeen years, too. It's a curiosity of constant acceleration travel that, once you get to near light-speed, you don't seem to travel any faster, when viewed from the planet you are leaving from or flying to -- planetary time. So, even if you are traveling faster than a previously launched ship, you don't "catch up" much. What changes a lot instead is your journey time when viewed from within the ship -- your journey seems shorter when looked at from ship time. The journey to the Altair fragment took ten years, ship time, for the first wave, but only seven years, ship time, for our second wave.
As is common on all starship journeys, as we approached our destination, we studied it. But studying your destination isn't as easy as it seems. For most of the journey we couldn't tell much about the world around us in any direction because of the speed. When you're moving at relativistic speeds -- near the speed of light -- everything in front of you looks like an X-ray haze, and everything behind you looks microwave dark. And, when you're slowing down, the engine exhaust gets in the way of forward viewing. But when we were a light-year out, and down to about .5C, the picture cleared rapidly.
And what a picture it was! The area was a beehive of activity! Ships were darting this way and that. One of the Earth scientists on board our ship said it reminded him of fish swimming around a coral reef... I wouldn't know, I'm a Belter, and I was never a swimmer. Although after he said it, I noticed the similarity to what I'd seen in Earth nature videos of coral reefs.
If this HX fragment was like a coral reef, then we were like small guppies... and beginner guppies, at that! That's where Osmore came in. As soon as the fog cleared, he was saying, "Go slow." It was cool, logical advice, but Carrack couldn't resist playing politics. Once Osmore had called for go slow, he found a lieutenant hothead named Anderson, and backed him. He was using a tactic that had served him well on Earth: FUD -- Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt -- keep your opponents off-balance by raising surprise issues. But FUD had no place out there -- a place where there are big, real threats to be faced, and quick cooperation is a lot more important than who sat next to the Captain at mess.
The crew saw this. Hell! Even Anderson saw this, and he backed off! Then Carrack felt deeply threatened because this wasn't his kind of world. He wanted politics, without politics, he was naked.
The biggest question the fleet faced as it was braking to a halt in the Altair Fragment region was: how to deal with all the races? We had expected to find an HX, one HX. Instead we found a dozen alien races, all dangerous, and all competing. The hot topic every day was: who to deal with first, and how to deal with them? The situation clearly called for watching.
But Carrack felt this was an act-now situation, and his weapon of choice was talk. He wanted to pursue an "if you can't beat 'um, join 'um" tactic, and the question of who to join was a minor issue. He was for heading in, hell-bent-for-leather, ready to wheel and deal with whomever would talk to him. How would he talk? Sign language and barter to start with.
As his plan became clear, the crew backed Osmore, and formally declared Carrack insane. We got word that Carrack was in the brig many hours after it happened. It was unnerving to Osmore, the crew, and to the rest of us in the fleet.
Osmore pulled a complete reverse from the Carrack plan. He planned to stand off and watch. He was a science officer through and through, so he was happy to watch and study until all those around him grew long and shaggy beards. At first the crew was elated, but greed is a powerful motivator, and they began to ask themselves how watching was going to make them rich? They started feeling, maybe, they had jumped out of the pot and into the fire.
But what they saw! What we saw when the second wave got there! It took all our breaths away!
The ships in the vicinity were all flying around at four-to-ten times Earth's gravity -- 4-to-10G -- and, best we could tell, at four-to-ten times the fuel efficiency that our ships were producing. Their cloaking abilities were astounding, those ships would blink on and off our radar like fireflies. There were big ships -- city sized -- and small ships, some so small we couldn't detect them, but we could see the bigger ships dodging them. At the center of all this activity was a moon-size, moon-round object, but with the low density of a building, such as skyscraper -- it was an intact HX skeleton!
As we watched during the last months of our approach, we could see big ships coming and big ships going. Osmore and his watching confirmed that the big ships stood off, and the smaller ships we saw were launched from them.
For two months after the rendezvous everything was sunshine. But greed does not breed patience. Osmore wanted to watch for another six months, at least. But the crews on the three ships, all of them, got restless. The hotheads wanted to "cherry pick" something, and head back. They figured, rightly, that anything... anything they brought back from this place would be worth it's weight in diamonds. The general feeling was, "Why wait? Lets grab something and head back. We'll be rich and the Solar System will have plenty to justify sending more ships."
"The problem is:" Osmore retorted, "Just what to you propose to take back? And where do you propose to get it from? Look at those ships out there! Which one is the 'ole granny ship' that you propose we 'mug'? The slowest ones we see maneuver at 4G." He had a good point... a real good point. So, while he studied formations and performance parameters, the off-duty crews studied what our own ships could snatch and run away with.
As they watched, the problem started looking even tougher. It looked as if these aliens knew each other. They didn't talk to each other, but they knew how to stay out of each others' way. Fights were few, but when they happened, they were over in an eye blink.
After a month, there was muttering that we needed to move closer. There was counter-muttering that if we moved closer, one of those high performance ships would take an interest, and we'd die.
They compromised; halved their distance; and watched some more.
Then the ugly got serious: Carrack's original idea of talking to one of the aliens came back into favor, and with it, the idea of putting Carrack back in as captain! Since there had never been a mutiny trial, Osmore's position as captain had never been confirmed. In the "days of wonder" it had seemed so unnecessary.
The tension was thick, but life is full of surprises. It was Jonas who broke ranks, not Carrack! Jonas headed in! He wanted loot! And here the legendary Luck of Jonas came to his rescue. Early on in his rush to get to the HX, his ship was intercepted by what we now call the Dolox. In his recollections of the journey, he never says much about that contact. Instead he talks endlessly about what happened when he got closer, and actually landed on the HX. He talks about how he bobbed and weaved... and got close to this and that... and landed... and sent two parties in... shot things up, and then scampered back. And when the dust settled on that first sortie into the HX realm, he had an HX battery, and a big one, at that!
Of course, no one knew anything about HX batteries at that time. So no one thought to think, "Wasn't it strange that Jonas found a live battery at a dead HX site?" No one talks about that, but the more I learned about HX treasures, the more I thought about that. That's why I think he got a gift from the Dolox.
Anyway, based on Jonas' success, Mandalay decided to take his ship in for a try at a close-to-HX raid. Mandalay went in... and simply vanished. To this day we don't know what took him out, but I have my guess as to how Jonas got lucky and Mandalay didn't. We now know there are a hundred different kinds of ships and traps in the near-dead-HX environment that can do that to an Earth ship. Jonas said he headed for an "empty spot" on the HX, and at the time that's what it seemed he did. But, if you look carefully at the record, and add what we know now about the dead HX environment, Jonas' good luck in finding an empty spot may have been because the Dolox was nearby. It may have been that everything in the area was scattering away from the Dolox and the Dolox had not chosen to blast Jonas' ship into the Death Dimension -- it's now known that they are top of the food chain when they hang around dead HX.
It may be that when Mandalay tried, he got average luck. The spot he picked was likely as empty as Jonas', but something that saw him as food wasn't scared off by some bigger, meaner ship nearby. Mandalay's disappearance sobered the first wave, and Osmore's watching approach once again looked good. Jonas and Osmore watched until we of the second wave came up.
Based on what Osmore saw, and Jonas and Mandalay experienced, the joint first- and second-wave task force decided that rushing into the HX itself was not going to be our best strategy. What Osmore proposed was mopping up after other ships had disasters.
There was a war council of captains shortly after the second wave arrived. I remember that meeting well. This is the meeting that gave Osmore his terrible reputation.
"... In summary: First, these other ships around the HX are all both self-sufficient and deadly. They maneuver and fight for themselves, and all of them are tougher than we are. Until we improve our equipment even more, dramatically improve it, there is no one here we can bully. However, if we find and take home anything from here, virtually anything! That dramatic improvement will happen.
"Second, there is one difference that we may be able to take advantage of over the long term: What makes these aliens different from human players in a similar situation is they aren't game players. They are all solos, they don't temporarily gang up to beat other players, and there are no long-term alliances I can detect.
"Third, our winning strategy for now, now meaning before we have the dramatic improvements installed in our fleet, is to clean up after there's been a fight, and the fight has created a helpless loser. We can overwhelm the loser and scavenge what the winner doesn't take away."
"You want us to be fucking, lowlife scavengers?" said Hendrix.
"Well... the fucking and lowlife aren't necessary, but the scavenger part is right on." there was complete silence. It should have been good humor, but he was facing a hard, hard audience for that message. He was telling the bold captains that they should become skulking thieves who took advantage of others' deepest misfortunes.
"... Think of it this way: You're at a gunfight. You've got a big rock. How do you bring back anything from the gunfight? You wait until someone gets shot... badly... then you crush his head with your rock, and take his gun... unless the guy that shot him comes to take his gun. Then you take the dead man's bullets, or boots, or whatever the winner leaves behind! That's what I'm saying.
"... any questions?"
There were no questions, but there was no enthusiastic round of applause, either. And two weeks later, Hendrix and his boys tried a dash for the HX. They suffered Mandalay's fate. It was so sad. And after that, Jonas decided he was ready to head back with his battery. He headed back, but the rest of us stayed, and learned.
For the next five years we skulked. We watched. We cheered when there were chases and shots fired. We watched carefully to see if one of the two combatants went dead in the water. We watched to see if the winner boarded the loser. If he did, we closed when he left, and there was always something valuable for us left behind. We were so HX poor then... anything... ANYTHING! HX was more valuable than diamonds.
We learned that if the winner didn't close with the loser, and loot it, we had to be very cautious about coming up. The loser might be all dead, but it might not be, and it might be able to shoot back and hurt us. If it wasn't all dead, we would have to finish it off, then loot... if we could... many times the loser would repair while we approached, and fight us off, and then jet off to its mother ship to finish fixing. When we could loot a partly wounded ship, one that we finished off personally, the loot was really good, but I never liked doing that. It reminded me too much of Old American West Indian massacre stories. But, like the idea, or not, it was the only way we would get HX stuff in that environment.
And sometimes we got chased, too, and twice our ships got caught -- more good men lost. But, on the whole, we were luckier than not, and after three years, we had amassed a respectable collection of stuff. We split the fleet. We put all our loot on one ship, and kept it well away from the HX. Then it took two ships to hold our loot. After five years we were ready to head home, and we did. Seventeen years later, planetary time, the Solar System enjoyed the first fruits of exploration of a full HX skeleton. I don't count Jonas' battery because, regardless of what he says, it came from somewhere else. But... that's just me talking.
But talk is what killed Osmore's reputation. Jonas badmouthed him for five years before the rest of us got back. I guess he felt bad about Carrack losing his command, and he blamed Osmore for that. When Carrack got back, he joined Jonas in the badmouthing. The rest of us were quiet. I didn't like what Jonas and Carrack were saying, but I didn't really want to tell people what a lowlife corpse-picker I was while I was at the HX, and I would have had to talk about that to stand up to Jonas and Carrack.
But we brought back a lot of HX "fruit", and those fruits did make a huge difference! The fleets that went out next could travel at 3G, not one 1G, and, in Osmore's analogy, they had BB guns to bring to the party, not just big rocks. They also had a new idea: perhaps the humans could talk to these other races, and trade? The Trading Post idea -- which is now the most profitable thing humans do at HX skeletons -- was conceived after the first expedition came back and talked about what they saw.
So, I say we owe a lot to Henry Osmore. He's the man who hunted down information when all those around him were hunting for tangible loot. He's the one who came up with a winning strategy in what looked like a lose-lose-lose situation. He's the one who figured out how to make looting HX skeletons pay off, even if you couldn't get close to one, or to any of the alien ships doing the looting.
Yeah, talk to Henry, and then make a statue of him and put it up next to Jonas'. He deserves it.
-- The End --