Zen Morai nudged the right flight stick on his control unit, and the fifteen tonne asteroid chunk beneath his feet stopped rotating. A tap on the throttle, and the longitudinal thrusters pulsed, sending him and his payload towards the cargo rail – the two-hundred metre long metal tube with dozens of meteor chunks harnessed to it. They had already caught a batch of about ninety tonnes of ice, and this would be the last of their haul on this shift.
“Status check,” said Daw Artego, through the local shortwave. He was sitting safe on Gopher-7, the bullet-shaped railrunner that pulled the cargo rail, a tiny vessel less a space ship than a space boat. His voice sounded tinny in Zen’s spacesuit.
Even though Zen had done this a thousand times, sweat beaded his brow. Any extravehicular activity was dangerous, especially driving a rock. You needed a feather touch and patience. He remembered years ago, a rookie named Cassie, who had neither. Tired and bored, she thrust a rock too hard and wasn’t paying attention. It rammed another one and damaged the cargo rail. That was bad enough, but she was caught between them and turned to paste.
Add to that the fact the company cut corners to save pennies. He was still stuck using stone-aged manually operated driving pylons, for example. Every shift, Daw would park their railrunner at a spot the survey team highlighted. Then Zen would have to suit up and jet over to a good rock. Next he had to drill holes in it to insert the dozen four-metre long pylons, and then calibrate their thrusters, all by hand. Basically, his job was strapping jet engines to asteroids, and then flying those asteroids close enough to the cargo rail so that he could harness them to it. After that, he got to disassemble everything, but at least from there on the railrunner would pull their cargo.
Legally, drivers weren’t even supposed to actually ride the rocks, but it was the best way to react when something was inevitably misaligned. Endless room for error.
“Just bringing her in,” Zen said.
On top of all that, Zen was stressed because they were smuggling a platinum asteroid with the ice.
He pushed the rock gently forward, and fired reverse thrusters when it was in place. It was darker than the ice chunks, and if anyone looked up close they would easily see it was a different kind of rock. But nobody did visual inspections. The economics just didn’t work out. And so they’d gotten away with smuggling twelve of these right under their boss’s nose.
Here’s to lucky thirteen, and an early retirement.
It took Zen another two hours of work to harness the rock to the cargo rail, and another two to disassemble the driving pylons. All the while he hoped this was the last time they had to do this. He pictured his wealthy future, well away from the frozen hellscape that is icemining in the Canor Asteroid Belt, and he wondered if that future included Lia. He both did, and did not, want her there.
By the time he passed through Gopher-7’s airlock, he was trembling from fatigue. Daw floated towards him in the ship’s zero-g atmosphere and handed him a celebration margarita. It was a rubber ball with a nipple, filled with cold water, fruit-flavoured protein powder, and a dash of moonshine.
“Any word from home?” asked Zen.
“Naw,” said Daw. “They quiet. Ain’t confirmed the last three checkins either.” Checkins were every twelve hours. So the icehauler Coleridge – their ride – had been silent for nearly two days. “Probably just interference from the belt.” Daw’s voice was confident, but he glanced to the side and frowned.
The trip back to the Coleridge took them a day. All the while comms remained quiet, and since Zen and Daw were at the end of a two week shift stuck with each other, they were fine being quiet too. They’d been driving a long time together, had learned each other’s patterns. Knew when to step up, when to step back. Friends were scarce in the Belt.
Zen decided he’d tell Lia. It was a risk, but they were good together and he trusted her. Maybe he’d propose and make it official. He was so tired of this life, an endless cycle of brutal, dangerous work, and drugging himself stupid.
Last time on leave he went on a bender. He had vague memories of drunken partying with Issen, Lia’s brother. Memories of whoring and gambling. Comforting memories of declaring he’d leave icedriving behind for good, and these declarations made the idea real. And uncomfortable memories that he might have let slip something about the platinum. But even if he did, nothing had come of it, and this was their last run. They were safe. They would make it.
By the time they had visual contact with the Coleridge – a hemispherical head connected to a six-kilometre long tail, scores of asteroid rails protruding from it like the quills of a pine branch – they still hadn’t heard anything on comms.
“Maybe their comms are down,” Dow said. “Maybe a rock hit something.” It wasn’t unheard of. The Canor Belt was relatively safe for a hostile work environment, but it did throw the occasional gift at you and the Coleridge’s point-defense cannons weren’t always positioned to slag it.
“Maybe,” Zen said, but he felt cold spread through his guts.
The other nine Gophers were already docked with their last rails, which meant the other nine crews were already done their last shifts. Daw took them in, navigating to Gopher bay 7. Normally they’d detach their rail and hook it to the Coleridge’s tail, but since this was their last shift this run, there was no point.
To stave off boredom and unease, Zen played around with the cameras, examining the massive Coleridge and her cargo.
The field of dull space ice was worth a small fortune. Icerocks were the main way of getting water on most of the stations in this system. Not that anyone outside the investors saw a real cut of the profit.
Then Zen spotted something and frowned. “Check out camera nine.”
Daw complied. “What is that? We got guests?”
An unfamiliar ship was docked with the Coleridge. Sleek, narrow, and not broadcasting any ID. Zen swallowed.
“Maybe,” he said.
They looked at each other. “You don’t think…” Daw said. He didn’t have to finish the thought. Government auditors were their constant worry. They were rare this far out on the Canor Belt, but an inspection based on a hot tip would explain the radio silence.
“Nah, it’s nothing,” Zen said, faking confidence. Had he babbled to Issen about his platinum? Had someone overheard? Had someone tipped off the government about smugglers?
“Maybe we should dump the cargo,” Daw said.
Zen turned to him. “What? How the hell will we explain that?” They couldn’t run either. Gopher-7 depended on the Coleridge, and no doubt they’d been seen. It would be beyond suspicious if they tried to flee.
“Fine, fine,” Daw said. “We’ll figure it out, or die trying.” His response for pretty much any problem.
“Worst case,” Zen said, “we’ll cut them in.”
Daw swallowed hard and his lips drew tight, but he didn’t say anything more and resumed docking.
Nobody met them at the airlock, and they both let out breaths they didn’t realize they were holding. No squad of marines arresting them, no imperious auditor denouncing them for smuggling and treason and a thousand other things. Of course things never actually looked like the movies, but the imagination did things when you were stressed.
But they didn’t see any of their crewmates either.
“Nobody’s responding on local comms,” Daw said, as they floated through the zero-g corridors. “Think they got everyone rounded up? Doing individual interrogations?”
“Interrogations?” Zen said. “This isn’t some cheesy cop drama.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe we should get our story straight anyway.”
Zen hesitated. He hated how much sense that made. “Yeah, fine.”
As they floated towards the command module they began hashing out their story, each regretting they waited this long for the idea to occur to them. The unbelievable possibility that they were going to get caught was becoming more real with each heartbeat. When they came to a T-juncture in the corridor, they finally came upon some other people – three men floating towards them with purpose.
Both groups of men startled and stopped, grabbing the railings that ran alongside each corridor to enable movement in zero-g. When Zen saw the men were armed, he felt a jolt of panic. They were marines. But then he saw their faces. Two of them were vaguely familiar, people he’d seen somewhere once upon a time. The third…
It was the only word he managed before the others raised their weapons and started shooting. A hail of pneumatic slivers tore into Daw, thrusting him backwards down the corridor and leaving trails of globular blood hanging in the air. He didn’t even get a scream out as a sliver punctured his throat.
Animal panic gripped Zen and he pushed off Daw, flinging himself back the way he had come.
“I got them!” Issen’s voice shouted behind him. “Corridor Nine-b! One runner!”
Not police then. Pirates.
Zen grabbed the railings and propelled himself faster and faster, attaining a skull-cracking velocity. Behind him, he saw the three men spill into his corridor and fire. Ahead of him, he saw the juncture that would take him back to Gopher-7.
When he neared the juncture he grabbed the nearest railing with the aptitude only a career spacer developed and he wrenched himself into it. He strangled a scream as something in his left shoulder tore. Not because he was hit by their fire, but because human shoulders just weren’t designed for swinging a body at such speeds. His grip faltered and he bounced down the corridor towards the airlock, rolling to avoid more injuries. Each bounce was a new bruise and a new opportunity to slow himself down and steer. He screamed out the voice command for the airlock to open.
His pursuers were slower. By the time they rounded the corner and fired again, Zen sailed into the airlock. The razor slivers sliced through his right side and thigh, his blood blossoming in the air. He slammed the door shut before the next volley came. The pneumatic weapons were ideal for tearing through clothes and flesh, but were too weak to do any structural damage to ships – the perfect weapons for safely murdering in space. Their slivers bounced off the airlock door.
Zen’s right side was on fire, and his body and face were covered in his own blood, which was clouding in the air. “C’mon c’mon!” he shouted, starting the cycling process. Something thudded behind him and he saw Issen’s face through the airlock glass. He was snarling and banging on the door. Probably saying something inane like “open the door!”
“Fat fucking chance,” Zen muttered. When the airlock cycled and the door to the Gopher-7 opened, he floated through, holding his side. He hoped he wouldn’t need stitches but he feared he did. Either way, it would have to wait. It was just a matter of time for the pirates to breach the airlock. He floated into the pilot’s seat – Daw’s seat – and shotgunned through undocking.
Something shuddered and he heard the deep wail of metal bending and breaking. He was licensed to fly, but as a backup for Daw he rarely did, and probably forgot something. The checklists didn’t cover “fleeing from pirates” anyway. Regardless, Gopher-7 didn’t report any critical errors. Good enough. He lit up the thrusters and put some distance between himself and the Coleridge.
But where would he go? He could outrun the Coleridge and he had a head start on the other Gophers. But Issen’s ship was a real star ship, not a glorified cargo truck. He decided to dive into the Canor Belt itself, banking on Issen’s pilot not being familiar with flying through rocks. Banking on being familiar enough himself.
Then an alarm trilled and his console flashed red. It was the friendly-fire warning, in case the Coleridge ever accidentally aimed its point-defense cannons at one of the Gophers. Only this time, it wasn’t accidental.
“Shit!” Zen said.
The whole ship rocked as the slugs tore through it, and he was knocked out when he hit his head.
Zen’s first thoughts were about making sure Daw was fine. Concussions were serious, and this wasn’t just professional diligence. Daw was his friend. It took him a while to extricate himself from his seat, and by then he remembered that Daw wasn’t there, that he saw Daw get murdered.
Zen ran his hands over his face. “Shit,” he whispered. Daw was dead.
He felt cold inside and he didn’t really know why. This line of work claimed people all the time. A ship like the Coleridge might have upwards of ten fatalities a year. But losing Daw was different. They’d been running this drive for nearly eleven years. They had a retirement plan. They’d leave this craphole of a system, find a planet to live on. And now, poof. Just like Cassie, they got careless and the whole thing got flattened.
And if the pirates were on the Coleridge and comms were down, the rest of the crew were probably dead too.
Zen wondered if he really was the only one still alive. When he checked his right side it was sticky with clotted blood. Stiff, sore, but he hadn’t bled out. Lucky day.
His hands hurt. His everything hurt. With trembling fingers he tapped Gopher-7’s cracked interface, trying to get an idea of what happened, of how much trouble he was in. He wasn’t dead yet, and if there was a chance of making it out he damn well was going to take it. Find a way to mourn the others properly. And maybe, just maybe, a spark of anger warmed his heart.
Parts of the ship reported no atmosphere, so the hull was breached. The engine was gone, shredded by the cannons. The cargo rail was missing. He figured their asteroid haul had given him enough cover to avoid getting slagged entirely. Small mercy.
He was stranded, but maybe he could do something unconventional with the maneuvering pylons, if any survived. And his radio still worked. That was good. But he was also deep in the Canor Belt, so it was unlikely anyone would be able to hear him.
Floating through the Belt and out the other side was about his only option. A couple weeks, if he was lucky and didn’t collide with a rock. Then he could signal for help, and maybe in another couple of weeks, someone would pick him up. If he stretched his supplies, he had the food to survive that long. But the cannons had also clipped Gopher-7’s water tanks, so all he had left was what was already in the pipes. Maybe a day’s worth.
Zen sat back in his chair, groaned, and stared out at the Canor Belt all around him. An ocean of frozen water, as poisonous as the seas of old Earth if not purified. Not something Gopher-7 was equipped for. Not something Zen was schooled in.
Zen chuckled. “We’ll figure it out, or die trying.”