“Sigma Station Control, this is Shuttle D177 on approach, please confirm.” I release the transmit key and sit back in my command chair, feeling that sense of weary satisfaction that comes at the end of a long day’s work, done well. “I’ve got one giant hunk of rock, all ready to deliver.”
There’s a moment of silence, then the comm crackles to life. “Roger that, D177. We have you on our scopes. Your approach vector is clear and set. Come in nice and slow; we don’t need that ‘hunk of rock’ missing its orbital slot.”
“I’m all over it, Sigma Control,” I reply, just a hint of annoyance in my voice. This is my job after all, and I’ve been doing it for over twenty years.
It’s not everyone who’s suited to flying an eighty-meter shuttle across a solar system with a muti-billion ton asteroid hanging off its bum, but after all this time, I’m an artist at it. I know just where to tether the monstrosities, just how much thrust to use to get it moving, the precise course to follow, and how to slow it down again so that it drops smoothly into place at its destination. I don’t like to brag (okay, yes, I do) but I literally move mountains for a living, and I’m good at it, too.
A beep sounds from my console, indicating that my destination is in range of visual sensors. I tap a key, bringing it up on the main screen. Sigma Station, a long central shaft surrounded by the skeletal-looking framework of its processing yards, hangs in space against the backdrop of the immense gas giant it orbits. For most of my career, I’ve been hauling asteroids from the Sigma Belt into orbit alongside the station, providing ready access to the metals and minerals the spaceborne rocks contain. I’ve played my part in fueling the system’s industry and economy, and I think I’ve done right with my life. Not that I’m planning to stop anytime soon, but I’m content with how things have turned out.
The comm crackles again. “D177, we’re showing an anomaly,” says the distant controller. “Something emerging from your payload’s shadow—”
The voice cuts off abruptly, drowned by a squeal of static. A mild sense of concern pulses through me. That hasn’t happened before, not in all the runs I’ve made. I tap the transmit key.
“Sigma Control, repeat your last. Didn’t quite catch that.” I release the key, wait a minute. Nothing else comes through the static. Odd. Very odd.
Then a loud metallic clank comes from somewhere aft, reverberating through the shuttle’s hull. I half turn, looking over my shoulder, an instinctive, unconscious gesture. The shuttle lurches abruptly, throwing me against my restraint harness.
“What the…?” I gasp, the wind temporarily knocked out of me. My mind races over the possibilities. Did my payload break free? Did a fragment fly off and hit my ship? Or is it something else altogether?
I get my answer a moment later. More loud noises ring out, coming from beyond the hatchway leading from the bridge to the rest of the ship. Call me crazy, but if I wasn’t alone on the shuttle, I’d swear they were footsteps.
Then the hatchway bursts open, propelled by some kind of explosive charge. Shards of metal ricochet across the bridge, striking sparks from the hull and smashing holes in screens and consoles. Several chunks hit the back of my chair, but the hardened material deflects them. I throw my arms up in front of my face, another instinctive gesture. A second later, the brief moment of chaotic violence is over. I swivel my chair around, peeking over my shielding arms to see a cloud of smoke roiling through the hatchway.
An instant later, a figure emerges from the cloud, clad in some sort of armored pressure suit. I have just a moment to register the large pistol it clutches in one gloved hand, and then it’s aiming right at me. My gaze goes from the weapon, to the blank, mirrored glass of the helmet’s visor.
“Who—” My attempt at a question is cut short as the pistol barks, spitting out noise and a bullet. The impact drives me back into my seat, a fierce pain blossoming in my chest. I look down, seeing the ragged hole in my clothes, the blood welling up and spreading across the fabric. Large bubbles of the red liquid roll across the material, balling up and breaking free of the surface tension, to drift through the microgravity.
I don’t know why, but my mind goes back to a time when I was younger and a lot more foolish, when I shot a pistol round into a stack of my mother’s decorative pillows. They were nice pillows, and I was an idiot, but I remember just how it looked, the outer fabric shredding in a second, a storm of white as actual goose feathers exploded from the ruptured pillows. They flew into the air, to drift around before slowly falling back to the ground.
All that goes away quickly, and I realize a couple of things as my sight dims to black. First off, my ship has been attacked, boarded by pirates or raiders or worse. Second, whatever they have in mind, it can’t be anything good, if they’re willing to gun me down without a word.
And finally, I think they’ve just killed me.
“Make sure you’ve got the trajectory right. We won’t get a second chance at this. Once Sigma Security is on to us, we’ll never get back into the system.”
“Don’t tell me how to do my job. I know how to fly a shuttle, even with a few billion tons of rock in tow.”
“Good, ‘cause of this doesn’t work out, you’re the next person I’m shooting.”
The voice is echoing and distorted, rendered artificial and mechanical by coming from the speakers of suit helmets. For a second, I don’t know where I am or what’s happened. I try to move, only to find that my body doesn’t want to respond. Then memory comes back, and with it, pain. A whole lot of pain.
I’ve been shot.
Only the sudden increase in pain when I try to move keeps me from giving away that I’m still alive. I can only imagine what the bullet did to me. I can just see it ripping through the fabric of my standard issue jumpsuit, piercing my flesh, going on to perforate vital organs and shatter bones. Blowing feathers everywhere. No, wait, that was the pillows. Anyway, the wound hurts. Oh, it hurts. But below the gaping hole somewhere in my midsection, I don’t feel anything. I couldn’t move my legs if I wanted to. Must’ve hit my spine at some point.
To distract myself from the agony in my gut, I try to focus on what the man who shot me—who probably killed me—is saying to his buddy.
“How long is this gonna take?”
There’s the sound of tapping on console keys. “Couple more minutes. Gotta override the nav safeties. Computers have them built in, to keep people from doing just what we’re doing.”
The person speaking is very close to me, close enough that I can hear the rasp of heavy breathing even through his closed helmet. Forget moving, doing anything to stop him. Not that I think I could move much. If I so much as draw a deep breath myself, he’ll know I’m alive. Then they’ll shoot me again, and I won’t have done anyone any good.
“Guess they don’t want just anyone piloting a rock shipment into their precious space station, huh?”
Once again, I have to use every ounce of self-control I have to keep from reacting. That’s what they’re doing, why they’re here. Why they’ve killed me. They’re some kind of terrorists, planning to use the asteroid I was delivering as an improvised weapon. They’re going to smash it into the station, destroy it. Kill thousands of people.
They’ve taken my shuttle and its payload, and turned it into a bullet.
“Aaand… done.” There’s a final click, then a creak of suit material as the man next to me straightens. “Course is plotted and locked in. Sigma Station is as good as gone.”
“You’re sure? No way they can destroy the rock?”
A low, ugly chuckle sounds. “No way. That’s more than ten billion tons of rock heading their way. The station doesn’t have the armament to shatter it, and even if they did it would just mean they’d get shredded by the debris.”
“What about diverting it?”
Another soft rustle, like he’s shaking his head. “No time. Impact in fourteen minutes. They don’t have anything close enough to tether the rock and shift its trajectory. I’m telling you, Sigma is toast. Mission accomplished.”
“Good. Now let’s get out of here.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice.”
Footsteps ring out on the deck, swiftly retreating. In seconds, I’m alone, still strapped to my chair. Still in horrible pain.
But still alive.
I open my eyes, blinking away the gumminess, and draw a careful breath. My gaze goes straight to the main screen. Sure enough, it shows a course, highlighted in blinking read, detailing a fatal intercept with Sigma Station.
I can’t help myself; I turn my attention to the hole in my belly. There’s so much blood, I can barely make out the wound itself, a nasty hole leaking bloody bubbles into the air. So, that’s what a bullet wound looks like. Not pretty. I feel sorry for those pillows now, believe you me.
There’s a med kit on the bulkhead, not ten feet away, but it might as well be on the other side of the solar system. From the lightheaded sensation that washes over me, I get the notion that I’m losing blood too fast. Any minute and I’ll blackout, and I won’t be able to do anything for anybody.
So, while I’m still conscious, I think I’ll ruin my killer’s day.
See, they really should have made sure I was dead. They were right that the station can’t do anything to stop the asteroid. To tell the truth, I can’t either. That much mass, already in motion, it would take hours to bring it to a halt.
But I don’t need to stop it; I just need to divert it.
Moving very carefully, I reach for the controls. An abrupt stab of pain makes me draw a hissing breath and pause. Then I try again.
The console is just within my reach. I access the maneuvering thrusters, run a quick system’s check. A bitter little smile flashes across my face. Either those terrorists were in too much of a hurry, or they were absolute idiots, but they didn’t do anything to lock down the controls.
I feed a little power to the thrusters, a careful balance between thrust and attitude, a slow, gentle easing. Can’t move to fast or apply to much power; that’ll just rip out the tethers without changing the rock’s course.
My comm panel pings. “D177, D177, you’ve altered course and increased speed. You’re on a collision course with Sigma Station, repeat, you’re on a collision course. Please respond.
Can’t respond. I grit my teeth against a fresh surge of pain. No time. I keep tapping the controls, careful, careful.
“D177, please respond. You have ten minutes until impact. You must adjust course immediately.” A pause. “D177, respond!”
Well, they sound concerned. But I guess that’s understandable.
Finally, the rock starts to move, verging off the course my killers put it on. I hold my breath, as much from anticipation as from the pain. Aaand… there! The plotted course changes from red to yellow, the line passing with a cosmic hair’s breadth of the station.
I slump back in my seat, letting out a pent-up breath. Crisis averted. Station saved. Bullet deflected.
A warning klaxon starts to sound, causing me to jerk in my seat, unleashing a fresh wave of agony. For a second, I think I made a mistake, that I’m still on a collision course with the station. But a glance at the screen shows me the real problem. I’ve altered the trajectory enough to miss Sigma, but I’m going to hit the planet behind it. Oops. I didn’t think that far ahead.
Well, the good news is that is just a gas giant. Uninhabited. The bad news is that hitting it will still destroy my shuttle, crush it in the superdense atmosphere. Kill me.
Strangely, that doesn’t bother me as much as it should. Must be the blood loss getting to my head.
Too bad; it’ll be an impressive sight to see, that big rock smashing into the planet. Like a bullet going through the galaxy’s largest pillow.
Feathers everywhere, drifting in space…