Finding ORE - A Miner's Tale

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The black expanse of space - massive, terrifying, beautiful. Cervator gazed out from the window in the large arrival hall at Pator Tech School in Aldrat he had finally made it to. A freshly made capsuleer, he had benefited from a decent endowment left by his parents, mixed with funds from an accidental death settlement with the refining corporation they had worked for until their recent untimely end. A whole quadrant of the crumbling station had collapsed, after a small impact from some space waste had hit a soft spot spider webbed by fractures caused over ages by metal fatigue. It had set off a cascading set of catastrophic tears opening across the barely held together outer bulkheads. His parents had been working to slowly put away enough ISK to provide a better future for their sole child, but their greatest hope was just that he'd be able to get a decent education and maybe leave the reprocessing plants in favor of a good solid Caldari desk job. Nobody in the family or known thereof had imagined that along with the settlement, there was just barely enough ISK for Cervator to undergo the treatment to become a capsuleer - gaining the ability to leave the old station they had lived on for generations, and fly through the galaxy at will, as a true citizen with all the special perks and benefits suitable for a capsuleer.

The opportunities now open to him were bewildering. He had known nothing other than the reprocessing plants and the dingy residential quarters on the nearly forgotten station in a boring corner of Caldari space. While he had grown somewhat fond of ores and metals, from the constant exposure of his parents' line of employment, he had come along to help out enough times to grow very weary of the intensely physical work under awful conditions. He had dreamed of the tales of mining capsuleers striking it big in deep space, finding rare minerals, while playing with a few token chunks of various rock types smuggled home over the years. Newer in his wildest dreams had he imagined to get the chance for real to fly by giant asteroids in space, seeing mining lasers strike them in a calm and repeating pattern. The shuttle pilot had been surprisingly nice, taking a quick detour from the Eygfe star gate in Aldrat passing by an asteroid belt while on the way to Pator Tech School. Wide-eyed, he had stared out the front view port, disbelief still clawing at his sense of reality.

Now here he stood - with only an advert for a university supposedly based here, a few meager personal belongings from his old life, including his small, treasured rock collection, and the capsuleer Smart ID that was hooked up to his interstellar bank account where his severely diminished funds waited for a purpose. As excited as he was about this new world now open to him, he had learned from the old station that a single wrong step, or a moment's gap in attention paid to a collision detection monitor, could lead to disaster. He didn't know this world yet, and it would be suicide jumping in a tiny ship to head out and explore on his own, even if he could afford a decently equipped frigate now. He'd be able to enable a clone body soon, but his ISK wouldn't leave room for more than one or two mistakes at most. Immortality didn't come cheap. What he needed was knowledge - and the advert indicated it could be found here. He pulled himself from the giant window and the vista without, and headed for the bulletin boards ringing the rest of the arrival hall, looking for more information on this "Eve University" organization.

His direction turned out to be a wise one. He started his education, and started to absorb knowledge like a sponge. In no time he was actually flying around in space, in his own ship without spending a single ISK, participating in extracurricular activities, mining tours, and even combat ops. Often there were lectures, presented as often by the staff as other students. Over time it became apparent that there were personalities from all walks of life, in addition to all corners of the galaxy. Some stuck out quite dramatically - as on the day where walking the halls he saw an odd spectacle. Ubercado, one of the top ILN brass, came walking calmly down the corridor _dragging a bloody corpse_. Even stranger, he greeted the students merrily, and while somewhat hesitant, several of them seemed completely unsurprised by the event.

He wasn't the only one who stuck out. Once a week Cervator was deafened, along with a full room of students, after fleet class was held by SilentBrick, the top fleet commander. The lessons were worthwhile, for sure, but they certainly weren't gentle! It became an easy routine to deduce when there had been a SilentBrick class - just look for the swaying students stumbling through the hallways, failing to hear greetings called out for them from their peers. Another routine encounter become finding Jen Loo in the cafeteria, munching down on the new and improved "Roids" cereal - now with marshmallows representing all 16 asteroid types _and_ their variants. In fact, there was remarkably little actual cereal, in between the numerous marshmallows. It had become a local superstition that if you were able to identify one of each marshmallow in a single serving, you'd have good luck on your next mining expedition. Come to think of it, Jen Loo's personal bowl, with initials encrusted in diamonds, was huge, and as for luck... well, Jen Loo had done well.

Months passed by and the camaraderie between Cervator and the other students grew. Becoming more experienced, he went from his initial Bantam mining frigate, to an Osprey cruiser, and one proud day to a full Retriever mining barge, with strip-mining lasers. The combat ops became more challenging, especially after affording a Drake battlecruiser. Early mistakes were made - the worst one being to lose the first Drake after not realizing how a hugely enlarged shield pool left behind the small amount of armor and structure as relatively useless buffers. Underestimating the time it took to align the somewhat bulky craft also didn't help, after having been used to nimble little frigates. When it was time to get out, the lengthy alignment time simply was too much for the patchy shields, and the armor and structure vaporized like dew before a particularly brilliant star.

Another shock was the first and very surprising trip through the cloning vat from the wrong direction. It was an incredibly disorienting experience, and the last few moments recorded before temporary death were as disturbing as anything he had ever experienced, multiplied by the stars floating in space. Clone jumping, when you knew it was coming, was far less of a shock, and helped desensitize yourself against the event that would surely happen again and again. The realization that death could become routine, that the physical body was but a shell you could shed like an insect discarding its exoskeleton to grow larger and stronger - it was still such a new world, and from the look of it that was not going to change for years. The universe was a very large place, and it would take ages to learn everything. Yet, afforded immortality by chance and a fluke - it was a life worth looking forward to.

There were contests and various events organized for the students, and one of them would provide the vessel that would bring more change to Cervator's life. After venturing into the field of fleet command, a couple chance encounters left Cervator with a shiny new Buzzard Covert Ops Frigate as a reward. Between keeping up with coursework and mining, exploring the deep dark pockets of space became the passion that took up the remaining available time in each sleep cycle. Sneaking around in space while utterly invisible short pilot error, with tiny probes tracking down every spec of undiscovered potential in a system. Various hidden sites of interest existed, and along with them the ever-elusive wormholes. Cervator became fascinated with exploring them, oddly enough gaining more satisfaction from simply scanning down the sites of interest rather than destroy the Sleeper drones that infested most of them. Especially the sites that contained asteroids - in those, anything was findable. Veldspar and the other high-sec minerals were old news by now, but wormholes? They could contain all sorts of rare minerals, most of which he had heard of growing up, but very few seen. However, exploiting them was so difficult in comparison.

Finding a solution occupied his mind for weeks. What happened next seemed almost like fate.

In an unusually obscure system, serving as a dead-end in a near worthless constellation, nothing at first seemed out of the ordinary. A couple Angel hangouts elicited little interest - obviously they'd be here, hiding from the law in an out of the way spot. A class one wormhole broke the monotony a little, but after jumping through it turned out to have been sucked dry of what little potential it had held already. Heading back out, Cervator glanced toward the monitor holding the local star map, looking for the next system to visit, but something pulled at his attention. The system was huge, and it had taken several probes to try to cover it at once. But he hasn't placed them perfectly, leaving a tiny hole in the coverage near the center. It seemed such a minor mistake, he almost ignored it and went back to his star maps. But with a shrug, he thought why not and sent the probes to meet near the missed spot.

After the probes had warped into place and completed their scan, a tiny red indicator pulsed gently on the monitor. The probes had just so happened to land so they intersected the spot at a perfect angle, distanced about the optimal distance. Yet the signal strength was so _weak_ - it was only a sliver above the threshold that would've disqualified it as background noise. He had never seen anything like it. The way these kinds of probes were calibrated would make it near impossible to find a signal like that, unless you got ridiculously lucky with the probes hitting just the right spot. As they just had. He was intrigued.

Hours passed, and every probe in his inventory was hovering around the area where the signal still pulsated slowly from. He had moved his ship close as well, and was furiously adjusting sensors of any kind to somehow help boost the output. Even the heat sensor in the coffee maker was pointed out the front view port in the general direction of the disturbance. That one didn't seem to be helping much, but then nor did the rest. The signal strength had barely improved since the original scan. This wasn't working. With a sigh, he noted down the exact relative position each probe was positioned in, and plotted a course home. He was going to be late for fleet class. Remembering that corpse Ubercado had been dragging down the hallway once, he wondered what happened to students late to SilentBrick's fleet class. He swallowed slowly and double-checked his clone records.

After returning from the medic's office, post-fleet class, Cervator tried to shake off the groggy feeling after the shot of painkillers and grabbed the nearest Quafe he could find. He had some research to do. His probes obviously hadn't done the trick, but they weren't anywhere near top of the line. He winced at the ISK cost on the records his market search brought up for high-quality probes. How could there be individual probes costing more than the combined value of half his ships?!? Shaking his head, he tried to put the weak signal out of mind. Which worked about as well as trying to make up an excuse for being late for fleet class. Why couldn't he leave it alone? He'd abandoned weak signals before when there were plenty of other juicy sites to scan down. This was different, somehow. The decision was made before he even checked his balance - it would wipe him near clean to equip a set of high-quality probes, but at least he still had ships and supplies to make some of it back if really needed.

Less than a day later he was floating in the same dead-end system again, painstakingly placing each probe at the exact coordinates his weak ones had been at. Nervously he hit the scan button, fearing nothing would appear. Phiew - still there. The tantalizing red dot re-appeared, signal strength amplified a fair bit already. He set to work, making tiny adjustments, engrossed in his work until the ship computer sent him a medical alert that he had remained awake long enough to trigger the warning limit, even if using stimulants. What day was it? He had completely lost track of time. But there it was - 98.28% signal strength. He grabbed another Quafe, and realized there was a small mountain of spent containers piled on the floor around him. He was so close now - just a few more adjustments.

He woke up when the control panel zapped the hell out of his lip. Apparently he had finally succumbed to exhaustion, fallen asleep where he sat, and drooled on the instruments enough to cause a minor short-circuit. After some quick damage control he stopped the goopy mess from dripping any deeper into the electronics, and almost missed the big glowing red dot on the scanner. 100% strength, Warpable! Wasting no time he mashed the warp button silly, and the Buzzard flew off towards its target.

The signal he had hunted so intently turned out to be a wormhole - but what a specimen! The colors were completely off, warped together in patterns he had never seen before. Checking his instruments everything looked normal and operational on his side, but the sensors could pull up no sensible data on the wormhole, just garbled gibberish. Uncharacteristically remembering to recall his probes (this fancy set costing several times more than his ship), he took a deep breath and inched the ship forward.

The transition seemed to somehow feel somehow _stretched_ - usually it was near instantaneous from the one side to the other, but this one dragged out for a short while. Upon arriving on the other side, sensors and alarms were going off left and right. Celestial mappers failed to lock on to any known patterns of the Sleeper galaxy. Astrometrics were reporting completely unknown phenomena affecting local space. No locus signature what so ever. An odd yellow-greenish gas of sorts permeated the local area, dimming the distant star - no, wait, there were three of them, a ternary star system. The stars were showing through a strange sheen he had never seen before, due to the gas clouds. After a few moments the system scanner started listing a few meager planets orbiting the center binary pair and a single one around the third star. Most the system seemed to be tied up in incredibly massive asteroid fields, orbiting the stars in tight bands.

Upon closer inspection, the few planets appeared only to be old wrecks, barely held together. They were at an odd distance from the stars, where rocky planetoids usually wouldn't be found, more likely gas giants. Chemical analysis data was returning, revealing a potential theory - most the planets left appeared to be the blasted cores of gas giants, stripped of their old mantles, with innermost orbits taken up by crushed planetoids that had yet to scatter much from their original path through the cosmos. With that little drift, something had torn every celestial object in this system asunder, and not that long ago.

A bead of sweat dripped down his forehead and made him blink. Looking away from all the flashing gadgets calling for his attention, he checked a monitor to his side showing the rear camera view from the ship.

There was nothing there.

Panic bubbled underneath the surface of Cervator's still shape in the cockpit. His beating heart was doing its best to upset said stillness. Bringing up archive footage from the same camera, it didn't show anything resembling a wormhole at all, just the strange gas mist, interrupted by brief static, then the quiet view of the system he had left just a minute or two ago. Sensors insisted there had never been any kind of disturbance around the ship, certainly not a wormhole. There was nothing, other than the mist, the distant stars, and planetary rubble.

All the blinking gadgets suddenly got the attention they clamored for, several more than they had asked for as they got a swift slam by a closed fist. It didn't change the results - the scanners couldn't identify half the stuff around him, but they had done their job and harvested all available information about the system. Well, wait - there was one oddity. Hard to see in the bright center of the system, there was a narrow beam of light extending from it. Two actually, meeting at a sharp angle. Cervator punched in a course, and slowly started moving towards the center of the system, while his expensive probes darted out from their launcher, trying to find some sort of remnant in local space of what he knew had to have been there. What wormhole leaves no exit? It must have collapsed after he went through. But that would've left evidence his ship and probes should be able to detect. But there was nothing.

After hovering through more and more of the same mist, the local area yielding nothing, he expanded the probe coverage to a standard system scan and started calculating a careful warp trail to near the third star. Closer up, the light trail became blatantly non-natural. No astronomical phenomena he had ever heard of would produce two such focused beams of light at such an exact angle with absolutely constant intensity. They didn't even seem to disperse with range, they seemed as sharp as distant as he could detect the trail as up near to the angle.

The probes found nothing elsewhere, as he had begun to suspect, and he shuffled them to near the angle of the beam instead. A strong signal appeared immediately, to some sort of structure at the focal point. It was easily warpable - he set an cautiously distant range from the center, and hit warp again. Upon arrival the object remained tiny and distant, with nothing of interest near it. No energy fields, no dangerous radiation levels, pretty much nothing of interest. He made another jump to get quite close to it.

It was a giant prism. Sharp beautiful edges. Absolutely still in space, it just sat there, with light so powerfully focused it looked like a frozen river of luminance. No stray specs of anything came near the light beams or the prism. Space almost looked deeper here, more black. No diffusion of light, just the prism and its bent beam. Sensors couldn't get a handle of what it was, and completely failed to penetrate the perfect surfaces. He wasn't getting any more information out of it than by simply observing it with his own eyes.

Two days later, and he was floating near the prism again. He was tired, and his stomach wasn't agreeing with the emergency ration food pills and recycled water. He ran out of fresh supplies the day before, not having expected to be out this long. Quafe was all gone. He had spend the time searching every little bit of the system, finding absolutely nothing. Not even the weakest hint of another wormhole. He'd been scanning over the same areas multiple times hoping a wormhole would generate. There was nothing in the system other than torn rocks and the prism. Well, one observation was unusual. Up close, the majority of the broken rocks and planetoid fragments were covered with mercoxit crystals. A thick layer of it, everywhere, no less. It wasn't doing him any good - it was useless out here.

He had come back to the prism several times, but turned back out to seek elsewhere. He hadn't discovered anything new about it, but at this point had given up on the rest of the system. There was one thing he hadn't tried yet. One of his probes was slowly moving towards the beam of light a short distance from the prism. He couldn't gather any information from trying to scan the beams, but maybe colliding a probe with it would tell him something. It felt like an eon watching the probe slowly approach. As it was about to hit the bean, he leaned forward in his seat, as if the extra 30 centimeters would help him spot something. Maybe it did - the instant the probe touched the light, it appeared to dematerialize. But he thought he had spotted something - an ethereal glimpse of motion, was it there, or a figment of his imagination? He sent another probe, and narrowed his eyes. Yes - there was a slight bit of extremely rapid motion, looking as if the probe was sucked into the light and whisked away from the prism at incredible speed.

He had not previously dared to consider this theory, but desperation in finding nothing else in the system had brought him back to the prism. He started inching his ship forward towards the beam. A fraction of a second before impact, he shut his eyes tight as brilliance enveloped the cockpit. Then there was nothing again. The assault of light had felt like a physical pressure for a moment, and then disappeared completely. Opening his eyes, there was nothing in front of him. Well, nothing in comparison to the light he had sensed previously, there was just the empty black of space with the ever present green haze visible in the distance. And two probes, lazily floating some distance away. Off to the side were the binary star pair and a broken planetoid slightly eclipsing one of them. He exhaled a breath he didn't realize he had been holding, and his shoulders sagged. He had just floated through the beam, along with his probes.

No, wait, where was the third star? He tapped on a monitor pointlessly. The system scan showed the binary stars, broken planetoids, and massive asteroid belts. Just like usual. But no third star. He glanced out the view port in the direction of the binary stars, shaded as they were by the smart glass preventing the eye damage unshielded starlight could cause at this distance. They looked slightly different - one had been larger than the other, but now they were roughly the same size. Checking the scan again and calling up additional details revealed the reason: it was a different binary star pair, and a completely different system. It was just so similar to the last one, destroyed somehow by the same kind of cataclysm. With the same kind of prism visible on the rear monitor, one part of the light beam shielded entirely behind it, the other striking out in a different direction.

With that realization began a whole other chapter in his career as an explorer. How the system of prisms worked remained a mystery, but what they did was clear. Star system after star system was linked by these paths of light. Enter one and be sent off in the direction away from the prism, then somehow fly through the one at the destination system and settle behind it. The other beam at the destination system led onwards. He spend days traveling and scanning through system after system, with always the same result. No sites of interest, just destroyed planets covered in mercoxit and a prism. Some unknown civilization must have used them akin to star gates back in New Eve, but some terrible fate had befallen them, leaving naught but ruined systems behind.

He also did a closer astrogeological study of some of the rocks. Blasting away the mercoxit at a distance - giving some thought to who in their right mind had ever imagined wasting mercoxit to the incineration of bloodclaw missiles - revealed minerals of a stunning variety below the thick layer of crystals. Some he knew, others were completely alien to him. Very rarely did he find burned out remnants of what appeared like metal, embedded in the crystals, with unnatural marks on it. He turned one such piece in his hand, with a melted back and a sharp angle in front, some blurry markings along the angle. Definitely proof of some sort of civilization. While his archaeological instincts tempted him to investigate further, the fact that he was running out of even emergency food was a constant reminder that he did not have the luxury to indulge in lengthy curiosity. At this point he'd give a whole system full of mercoxit for a single Quafe. He had to push on.

Finally he found something unusual. He had lost track of how many of the light jumps he had performed, but was sure the exact number was stored in the computer somewhere. A system he had arrived at showed signs of activity. The layer of mercoxit that had been ever-present elsewhere was scraped off a substantial amount of the asteroids and planetoid remnants. There was also a wormhole. A _stable_ wormhole. He suddenly didn't need stimulants to stay alert. More thankful than ever that his cloaking device still worked, he carefully explored the system, but could only deduce that a mining operation of substantial size had been active here for a long time, then stopped, probably as the next system over looked more tempting than to spend any real effort grabbing the remnants here. Entire planetary fragments had been bored through by massive strip lasers, leaving them spinning slowly in space with stars occasionally twinkling right through their middle.

The wormhole turned out to have a familiar look to it - to the massive relief of Cervator and his strained supplies. He was pretty sure it led back to k-space. None the less, he resisted the urge to jump through and seek a safe port long enough to make one more hop down the pathway of light to check out the next system. As expected, it too had been hollowed out by miners some time ago, but nothing remained now. Having seen enough, he reversed course and made it back to the wormhole. One more deep breath and he plunged through.

Once again, he was thankful to be cloaked. The other side of the wormhole was crowded with floating sentries - gun batteries, artillery, missile launchers, laser turrets, jammers of all sorts, all surrounded by what looked like a station shield, but was far smaller. The emitter also looked heavily modified. Yet all of it looked very aged and automated - nowhere did anything appear to be of a size to contain life support or have any hatches. A closer inspection of the emitter revealed what looked like customized cloaking technology. Of course! Whoever had found this wormhole and the fields of riches behind it would do their best to keep it a secret. Outside the field this whole installation was likely invisible, hidden to anybody who didn't know it was here. Realization dawned upon him as his eyes caught an insignia on the side of the emitter - ORE

Checking passive scanners he was able to confirm the location of the system in the Outer Ring region. ORE's home, and the location of their supposed discovery of a source of mercoxit and vastly improved processing technologies. He had always wondered about that tale - how the pirate corporations and jealous miners had searched the region for years without finding a trace of the mysterious source. Admittedly ORE had succeeded fairly well in keeping them away for a long time, but none the less, if they truly had found a solid source of mercoxit, _someone_ should've found at least traces of it somewhere. And the processing technologies had yielded far greater amounts than seemed realistic, while remaining elusive for years. Surely by now a disgruntled employee would've leaked some blueprints or components for his or her own greedy desires.

Neither of those two were the case. They hadn't found a small solid source of mercoxit and then developed technology to extract it with a near perfect ratio. They had simply blundered into the greatest treasure anybody in New Eve had ever seen, and then extracted it with all of the surgical precision of a butcher. Hiding their entry wormhole with a setup like this made perfect sense. Although it couldn't be the only one - this installation showed signs of years of neglect. If it was the only entrance there would be a lot more hardware guarding it. In fact... a surprisingly devious plan developed in Cervator's mind. It looked a lot like the goal here had been to keep people from finding the wormhole from this side, not reacting to something coming through it. It didn't appear like any sensory equipment had been aimed at detecting mass-change in the wormhole, so his passing was probably still unknown. Hopefully.

Cervator kicked into engineer mode. He headed for a cargo access hatch and cracked open one of the expensive drones, starting to interface it with both his hacking module and his cloaking device. The goal was simple, while the engineering was difficult - he was thrilled to have paid attention in class. Modify a probe so it could be passively shoved toward the emitter, staying undetected on the way, then hack into it upon arrival. The electronics in the probe were exquisite, worth the price. It took a few hours, but he thought it would do the trick. He was able to extend some of the effect from his ship's cloaking device to the probe, so it could be pushed away from the ship without breaking the cloak, staying undetected. It had been aimed well and connected with little effort to the emitter, where it began to run its hacking routines. As hoped, the equipment was woefully outdated, and was lacking all sorts of security upgrades. He was in.

Gleefully he hacked a backdoor into the system, hiding it as well as he could. To test it, he detached the hacking probe and enabled its engine, flying around the inside of the shield. It didn't register as a threat to the weaponry, which stayed inactive. Success! Elated, he pulled up star maps and plotted the safest course he could away from the Outer Ring and to the nearest safe station beyond it. The beginning feeling of safety and achievement was reminding him that he was pretty much out of rations, and he took off as soon as his hacking probe was back onboard. Still cloaked, the path was easy enough, no ORE ships stood in his way, and none were expecting anything like what he'd pulled off. When he finally made it to a friendly station he wasted no expense - best food available, luxurious cabin, any comfort available. He could finally rest, and what had seemed like a lot of ISK a couple weeks ago now was inconsequential. He had enough resources left to mount a small covert mining operation, and considering the likely take from it he should not have to worry about details anymore.

After resting for a few days he set off toward home. It wasn't until he was a few systems away that he realized how long he had been gone. Nearly three weeks had passed and he had missed all kinds of classes, events, and even exams. A brief shiver interrupted his daydreams, but he strengthened himself for the coming punishment with the thought of what prize awaited him when he was ready to set out.

It only took a couple weeks to get out of the sickbay. He had actually considered if he could've worsened some of the injuries enough so he would've awakened in the clone bay instead, but realized that probably would've lead to more disciplinary action. The thoughts of the future kept him strong. Quite a few of his friends had wondered where he had been, and he made the excuse that he had gotten lost in a wormhole, and had trouble finding the way back, only getting deeper and deeper. Which wasn't exactly untrue!

In the coming weeks he slowly made his preparations. He took leave for a few days at a time, sneaking through ORE territory, and then jumping through his backdoor. At first he scouted further and mined only what little he could carry while remaining cloaked. The main ORE mining operations started around 10 jumps from the first stable wormhole he had found, where they had all kinds of hardware in space. Star bases, capital ships, massive refinement, processing, and manufacturing facilities. They also appeared to have a few scientific stations analyzing some of the alien remnants they had dug out during their mining. But they were acting as if they were the only living beings around, and had grown lax in security. There were several more stable wormholes, corresponding to the more active ORE systems in the Outer Ring, seemingly clustered together in the strange other space, with the amount dropping rapidly outside 15 systems to either side of their main headquarters. The first stable wormhole Cervator had found appeared to be the farthest and oldest one, expansion pushing in the other direction.

No patrols were concerned with that part of space, and he kept having easy passage through his backdoor wormhole. Sneaking a retriever through the edge of ORE space was a bit more challenging, and an industrial doubly so. But his expertise, and wallet, grew. Feeling almost too lucky to believe it, he somehow ended up winning an Orca in a university contest, which fit perfectly into his plans! Along with it, he managed to finally transport some starbase components through the wormhole, and set up a covert base inside one of the hollowed out planetoid wrecks, taking advantage of the massive strip mining laser holes. With it came the need to involve others - Cervator told his tale to a few close friends and fellow students he could trust. The operation grew. Some general workers were shipped in without being told where they were going. All they knew was that they were staffing a mining base in deep space.

Eventually the increased traffic did manage to attract the attention of some locals. Some less upstanding residents of the friendly station Cervator had taken refugee in months back had noted the stranger who passed by and spent ISK as if it was nothing. Seeing him occasionally pass by in an uncloaked ship made them suspicious.

Cervator and his friends themselves grew careless and overconfident. They started stripping their main system and immediate neighbors in the open using hulks, letting down their guard. One day Cervator was nodding off at the helm while his strip miners were blazing away at a nearby asteroid. Suddenly the rude awakening of proximity alerts jolted him back to attention. Multiple contacts were approaching rapidly - led by a Rorqual! As Cervator started slamming at his controls, the tendrils of the Rorquals long-distance tractor beam started grabbing at his ship, as smaller escorts darted towards him. He jettisoned all cargo and aligned to the nearest object to get away from the capital ship. Warp! He barely made it as missiles started streaking through space toward him. Immediately after the jump he aligned for the prism, meaning to hit the light beam in the opposite direction from his base - straight towards the higher ORE concentration.

The next system had some smaller ORE ships in it, but they had either not been alert, or failed to believe that their perimeter could've truly been infiltrated. Cervator's Hulk was able to perform a risky warp getting him deeper into the system before the ORE ships could gain a lock. At an earlier time he had considered what he would've done in a situation like this, but sure had hoped it never would come to it. He warped again, towards one of the hollowed out planetoids, and carefully edged his Hulk into a giant bore. Wedging his ship into a pocket deep inside the rock, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and hit the self-destruct button.

The rough awakening in the clone vat at Pator Tech School was as abrupt as ever, maybe more so because it had been a long time. He had barely been doing anything other than the relatively safe mining for a year or so. He momentarily cursed the loss of the high-end luxury implants in his old body, but had no time to waste. He jumped to action and readied a spare cloaked Buzzard, setting out at once toward his backdoor. Hopefully they had yet to identify his route in, and looking for his now destroyed Hulk deep within a planetoid might buy him some time. The trip there was about as tense as his first trip through that fateful wormhole. Hopefully they had not gone past the system he had been in and found the base. Hopefully none of his friends had been caught unaware.

He let out a sigh of relief when he made it to the wormhole sentry post. There were several guarding ships there now, but as far as he could tell from his computers, his backdoor access was still intact. It could be a trap, but he had no choice. He flew straight through the cloaking shield, undetected, and jumped into the wormhole. His luck had held. The moment he made it to the system on the other side he sent an encrypted message to his base, giving the evacuation orders effective immediately.

The base had grown quite a bit over time, and now contained manufacturing capabilities to produce anything needed for an extended stay. Several blockade runners had been used to ferry material out, but a single freighter had also been built, pretty much for the hell of it. They had such a massive rich supply of material that they had developed their own little hobbies, and one friend had wanted to build a freighter. It wasn't totally complete, but more than flight worthy, and could be made ready to go within a few hours. The whole base started loading valuable supplies, excess ships, base components, and just about anything not bolted down into the freighter and blockade runners.

The small group did their best to make the base look smaller than it had been, leaving it in a state masquerading that of a small upstart mining operation, rather than a long-term massive extraction and industrial headquarters. Maybe ORE would take it at face value and think only a single Hulk pilot had been active. Wincing, Cervator left one of the blockade runners behind, sacrificing the expensive craft as a decoy to help the story.

Within long, the freighter took off toward the prism, loaded to capacity with materials, ships, workers, and friends. With a few escorts and the remaining blockade runners, they set off in the direction away from ORE, intending to go on for a long time before stopping. Cervator stayed behind near the prism's beam, but some distance from the entry point. After a few hours several ORE ships entered the system, and within long detected the base, assaulting it immediately with overwhelming firepower, destroying everything, and then hovering near the ruins running various tests and scanning the system. Cervator sighed, and moved into the beam, to catch up with and rejoin his fleet.

A long escape followed. More than a hundred jumps later, further than Cervator had ever gone, they slowed down and started scanning the systems thoroughly. One wormhole had been found in the past by a single ship. Assembled from the freighter's cargo hold, they now had a hundred, equipped with the very best technology for which they could acquire blueprints for. They had enough resources to fortify a system, and enough supplies to keep going for years. They would find a wormhole back to k-space. Or they could set off for uncharted space, looking for clues to the mystery of what happened to these shattered systems. It was a wide open Universe, full of potential - the students had become graduates, and were ready to chart their own course through the ocean of possibility.