#TeamSpaceWestern - Part Three: Gulch Rock - @RainerSalt

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Gulch Rock

by Rainer Salt / RainerSalt

Tending his herd of mining-bots was Jeff's profession and passion, and it was the one thing he was good at. He loved the silence, the simplicity, and the beauty of his work. He enjoyed the solitary vigil in his shuttle and the hours spent observing his machines as they slowly but persistently chewed away at an asteroid.

But today, something was awry. Today, the herd was restless.

The semi-sentient, eight-legged bots were skittish, swiveling their delicate sensor arrays nervously this way and that, chattering status messages back and forth.

Jeff logged into the alpha bot, R2-D2, and checked its sensor readings. They told him of a whiff of metal ions strolling the hard vacuum, the kind of trace the bots were designed to pick up. Yet the composition of elements was untypical for an asteroid of this part of the belt.

He shrugged. Jeff wasn't a scientist. He was just a herder. A good herder, keeping his bots running smoothly and efficiently. He had learned this line of work from his father and had inherited the bots from him when the old man had died.

Thinking of his dad made him remember the last time he had seen him alive, deeply inhaling from his final smoke, the acrid, obnoxious smell of Ecrivain's Specials hanging heavily in the air. "Them are the best, son," the old man had said, holding the fag between two fingers while coughing viciously. "Them makin' you awesome." His coughing had lasted for some more minutes; then he had died. Which hadn't been awesome.

Jeff had then given his dad the ritual burial, shoving his body away from their homestead's asteroid, supplying it with enough kinetic energy to flee the rock's gravitational field and to float through hard vacuum for years to come.

Since then, Jeff had herded the bots, dragging them after his shuttle from one asteroid to the next, wandering the belt, harvesting it for rare metals. Occasionally, he had visited one of the outposts for selling the ingots the bots excreted. Apart from that, he had kept to himself and to his herd.

Jeff activated the long-range radar of his shuttle, probing the endless abyss around him, searching for the origin of the metal ions his bots had sniffed. It took some moments for the scan to materialize into a coherent picture, but then he saw three dots. Still thousands of klicks out, but approaching steadily.

A clump of something was forming in his stomach. A clump as heavy and black as a migrant iron meteorite.

A beep announced an incoming AV-signal. He acknowledged the communication. A flurry of pixels coalesced into a face.

The monitor showed only the man's head, and not even all of it. Only a pair of eyes, a nose, and a mouth were visible, the rest of the man was outside the camera's field of view.

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