Fuel - Ayame Whitfield

            The virtual display in front of him showed a vast expanse of stars, cold white pinpricks stark against the inky blackness of space. Two six-clawed appendages reached forward, manipulating the hologram, and the 3D model twisted in on itself, zooming in on a small white star orbited by three lonely planets.

            “M’Tor?” The voice of his mate-and-lieutenant Eressa made him turn away. She stood in the doorway, illuminated from below by the red lights set into the floor.

            “Do you have a report for me?” M’Tor Seir asked. His eyes, all three of them electric-blue, noted the small data pad in her front limb. He also noted the way the side of her regulation black uniform bared a strip of pale flesh on her side—but such thoughts should be saved for in their quarters, after the day shift, when they were both off-duty and free to... indulge.

             Eressa nodded, extending the limb and depositing the data pad next to Seir. “The mining team has been put into orbit. The drill satellite should be operational within nineteen rafs.”

            “Any trouble back on the homeplanet?” The captain swiped a claw across the screen of the data pad, eyes flicking over the text there. Schematics, status updates... all of it indicating that the equipment was functioning within normal parameters. As was to be expected at a routine stop such as this. 

            “The usual activists complaining about preservation and such.” Disdain and annoyance mingled in Eressa’s voice. “The viconsuls aren’t very worried about it, but there’s no denying that the transport boycotts can be irritating.” It went without saying that such complaints were futile—the need for transport fuel called for mining, and in order to mine, certain measures had to be taken. If a few lesser biological organisms were obliterated in the process, it was a pity.

            It was a pity, but it was necessary.

            “What’s the technological advancement level of this planet?” Almost instinctively, his four front limbs manipulated the display again, pulling up an image of a mostly green planet about a third the size of the homeworld.

            “A four point seven. Barely aware of the usefulness of their planet’s natural carbon deposits in the production of energy.” Again, the female’s voice was filled with scorn as she contemplated this greatly inferior species. “Not even close to being an exception to the mining process.”

            “When was the last time we found a planet with that kind of a rating?” Seir mused. “Our list of allies remains short.” If a planet was found to be sufficiently advanced to achieve a nine on the Universal Advancement Scale (UAS), the homeworld extended an offer of alliance in place of a mining craft. Seir sometimes wondered what gave them the right as a species to use their own world as the measure of a perfect planet—a ten on the UAS.

            But these were not thoughts that the captain of a mining vessel should ever dare to speak aloud. If one such as him were to voice such thoughts, the activist minority on the homeworld would use that to their advantage. He would lose his position in the political mess that would follow, and overall it just wouldn’t have very good consequences. So all he could do was shut his mouth and follow orders.

            Such was life. 

            “Fuel is more important than allies. Even our ship’s running a bit low. This stop should give us enough to make it to the next assignment.” Eressa shrugged. “If not, the next one will for sure.”

            On the display in front of them, the planet’s surface seemed to flicker. A small black dot flashed red, a stream of data swirling from it on the holographic display. The mining setup was up and running. 

            “We’re ready to go!” Eressa’s voice was high with excitement. “Initiating sequence at your command, M’Tor.”

            “Go ahead.”

            Something small and yellow arced from the orbiting setup. On the dusty green surface of the planet a small red blossom grew, expanding from a space-dark seed at its center. Seir watched as it grew, spreading over the lush and verdant planet with incredible speed. The vivid color made the planet look like a red star, bright enough to illuminate the dark sides of the planet’s two moons. 

            He gazed at the hologram as the shock wave met itself on the far side and rebounded, sending shudders and ripples through the world. The whole surface was now a roiling mass of red and orange and black. The light spilling from the display—far dimmer than what was actually happening, as full brightness would be literally blinding—lit his and Eressa’s faces and bodies, casting long, sharp shadows behind them. 

            “Never gets old,” Eressa finally breathed as the light began to fade. “It’s like... like watching a sunrise and a sunset and a fireworks display all rolled into one!” In her excitement, she sounded like a young child. She must have realized it, because she flushed and cleared her throat awkwardly. “A-and. There are many resources here now that will bring glory to the homeworld.”

            Seir chuckled, patting her back. “It’s all right to be excited, Eressa. It is quite beautiful.” He’d been on countless mining expeditions, and the sight of the cleansing explosion that would bear the usable parts of the planet still took his breath away.

            But still...

            It was beautiful before, too, something inside of him whispered.

            “It is perhaps a pity that we must create such beauty with such destruction,” he said, the words spilling from him before he had quite thought them through.

            “What?” Eressa pulled away. “Don’t you start talking like an activist, M’Tor.”

            “Oh, I’d never dream of it.” Seir shook his head, trying to dispel these uncharacteristic qualms. “What’s next?” His voice was perhaps a little louder than was normal. If she noticed, Eressa didn’t comment on it. 

            “As soon as this planet’s confirmed ready for splitting and harvesting, we move on to a planet thirteen light-years from here. Technological rating of five point eight. Orbits a yellow, main-sequence star along with seven other planets and various asteroids and dwarves. Its inhabitants call it Earth...”

            As Eressa continued, Seir turned to the holographic display once more, claws skittering over the data display. There were a few requests for shore leave that should probably be taken care of the next time they stopped at a colony world. The chief medic needed more supplies—well, that would just have to wait until they made this stop. 

            “We’ll move on as soon as this is done,” he said, interrupting her—these were routine details, nothing he hadn’t heard before. She nodded.