From Issue 2
I always sleep like a rock when weightless, but some alarms will wake an asteroid. The alarms in my ship, The Hard Quarry, work admirably.
I jerk alert with my arms flailing and my heart rate cresting 150—which triggers another, quieter alarm. “Calm down, Hollie,” my comp says, playing soothing sounds.
“Fuck you, too.” I shout back. Until I focus on which light blinks.
Regs state to wear a spacesuit when shipboard and to strap in when asleep. I’m a little lax on the regs—hell, all miners are—but every single person follows the important rules. One applies here: advance notification when near another ship.
Don’t horn in on their stake goes unstated.
Also unstated is to always broadcast the Friend-or-Foe ID. The regs don’t need to cover that; laws do. The IDs are in fact difficult to disable. As I float my naked ass over to the console, rubbing my arms, to double-check my systems, I already know they work fine. There’s only one reason the ID isn’t there.
— * —
One hundred fifty million klicks separate Earth’s moon from the asteroid belt, give or take, and even the small Mars outpost is seventy million k from the nearest asteroids. I force deep breaths as I confront what every miner knows, in their heart: if something goes wrong, ain’t no SOS that can summon the cavalry in time. Those distances are best case, and now is not that. I’m at least twice as far and getting farther each minute I’m out here.
That’s not all. Blame a bad breakup, but when I grabbed my claim I took the one furthest from anyone else. Hell, registered stakes are 25 klicks per side, tiny in interstellar terms—but miners have always been an ornery bunch, and antisocial, and—in particular—suspicious someone else’ll find our best rocks and take them. We don’t go near each other, as a rule.
The nearest other claim to me is a few hundred k distant. My neighbor’s not there, because otherwise her ship’d be on my console. If any other ship passes within a million k or so, they show up, at least briefly. But none appear—the absences notably including the pirates.
This is my worst nightmare, worsened by the fact I’m outside my fucking spacesuit as I hotline the engines. If anything’s shittier than greeting pirates, it’s doing so buck-ass naked.
The pirates are behind me and a little down—so I know which way I want to go, except I’ve got a big fucking asteroid right on my nose. So I go plus-z, straight up from the solar plane and hit the thrusters as hard as I can. The ship behind me gets a great intercept angle, but that’s the best I can do until I clear the asteroid.
It takes longer to tell than to enact, but longer still to get clear—a couple minutes. I hover over my controls, checking and rechecking for the moment when I can angle away from pursuit. Sweat beads on my body. The enviro kicks higher, but I swipe it off. A touch more energy for the engines, plus the cold of space will cool me anyway. Win-fuckity-win.
The ship finally clears the asteroid, which I christen Shitturd 3—Shitturd 1 being the pirates behind me. Shitturd 2 is me for thinking the miner’s life a good idea. I angle the jets as straight away from the pirate ship as I can.
Mining ships are designed to be efficient, not fast, so I haven’t built much delta-v before my turn. Just enough to remind me I should be strapped down. Even a grav-bound Earther sailboat could catch me. Well, not over these distances. Not without sealing the crew into a habitat. But the fucking metaphor stands. My comp spits out numbers, but it makes no difference. The outcome’s already set.
They’ll be all over me before I can leave my own claim.
— * —
For twenty minutes, I race for my life—by doing nothing. Piloting these things is simple—I input destination (or vector) and speed; the ship takes me there. In the meantime, I read. Or take a nap. Crossing to and from Luna, I do a lot of both.
I can’t sleep just now, and I only read my console. It doesn’t help.
I push back from the bridge, float to my suit, and dress myself. Except the helmet; it’s bulky and constricts my view. More importantly, I want to use the ship’s air-gen system rather than the hours of oxygen in the suit’s tanks.
I step back to the console at a thought. I know fuck-all about the ship behind me, which means it may be a hauler like mine—or it may not. Most ships built fast don’t maneuver well. The bulk of space just doesn’t need it. Fast speed from Luna to Mars, sure. Dodge traffic on the trip, not so much.
Unless the ship’s made to navigate an asteroid field. Of course, the shitheads behind me are raiding in an asteroid field, so they might have good turn thrusters also, but that at least gives me a chance. Right about now, I’ll take it.
So I change heading again. Rather than flee straight from pursuit, I sacrifice some time from the chase’s end to drift back down into the asteroids before I’m overtaken. If I’m luckier than I’ve been since—well, ever—I’ll weave through them to make my escape.
— * —
The pirates wake up, or something. 30 minutes after my first delta-v, they tightbeam my ship.
“Give up, and at least you’ll live.”
Wouldn’t they love that—get the ship without a chase, with a gullible spacer as a cherry on top. My best hope would be a painless accidental death. The outcomes worsen if they keep their word. They could jettison me out an airlock with just my spacesuit or strand me on an asteroid without comms. Witnesses never make it back to Luna.
Drunkards in bars tell tall tales about this ship or that disappearing. A couple famous examples are on the netipedia, though with stereos of the debris fields remaining where they ‘disappeared’. Any miner drunk enough for honesty will agree that yes, vacuum is the worst thing in space, but other humans make the call closer than it oughta be.
Despite this, I’ve never drilled for pirate raids. Nobody does. What would the training be, anyway? “Nothing you can do, sorry kid.” It’d be the shortest eduvid ever. So my only guidance is from movies. In them, the hero talks with the pirates to stall while she fiercely strives to engineer a miraculous rescue.
I’ve nothing else to do, and if talking increases my survival chances by any fraction of a percent, I should talk.
I mute the message instead. Fuck those shitheads. I won’t waste my last hours bantering with assholes. I got better things to do. Talking to them goes on the list below scrubbing the john with the toothbrush I won’t need anymore.
So I tell the computer to flag any response to my broadcast SOS, record the pirate’s messages and transcribe them, and otherwise ignore the comm.
I spend the next few hours either bouncing around the bridge, just to do something, or laying still, eyes closed in a futile attempt at sleep. I mean, it’s not like my thoughts churn on anything important, like a literal race for my life. So I scan manuals and ship options for anything to give me better odds, until I can’t float still any more and bounce through the bridge again.
I corral myself at the console as I near the asteroids' plane again. Relatively speaking—there’s not a line and poof, now the ship’s in asteroids. But close enough I need to account for floating rocks.
The assholes also decide I’m too close, because their message changes—to a missile.
Missiles change a fight. With no need to survive, they don’t need safety protocols. Including acceleration limits. They’re about as dumb as asteroids, but once targeted they can overtake my Hard Quarry in seconds.
This one sails past me and cracks apart the nearest asteroid. A flash of light, a brief spray of ejecta. My spectrograph kicks in: neodymium, thulium, lithium, zirconium, silicon. Some iron and copper. Dammit! I mark the spot by reflex, but that’s profit I’ll never make.
Another message from the pirates. I glance at this one. “Next one’s aimed at you. Give up or you’re a nova.” Melodramatic, but I now know they can back up their threats. Maybe I should surrender and chance the survival. At least I’d be alive.
But to what purpose? My ship is my livelihood, my reprieve from Luna’s teeming masses, my oasis of sanity in an upturned world.
They talk big, but missiles are expensive. Only militaries build them, so they aren’t easy to acquire. The pirates want me—or my Hard Quarry—enough to use one on a warning. Or they don’t want to blow apart their loot. I appreciate the sentiment, a lot. But maybe, just maybe, it means they aren’t sure they can keep up in the asteroids.
So I gun it. In my mind. Since I’m already at max accel.
— * —
I’m right-some-wrong-some. The pirates can’t match my turn around the asteroids—but they’re moving faster. At my velocity, they’ll turn better.
They’ll catch me eventually, but I won’t go easy. They’re gonna have to work for their prize.
So I weave through the asteroids, programming a new path every few minutes as conditions change and ignore the dwindling distance between us as I head into the thickest part of the asteroid belt I can find.
I queue one more trick. My ores cover my fuel and food each trip, plus a bit extra if I’m lucky. I never thought they’d buy time so directly, but time’s what I need now. I punch my finger on the key to dump them into the pirates' path.
The nickel, copper, and iron bricks spread in a nice scatter behind me.
I mark this spot too, in glum farewell.
I don’t know how much time it will buy, but I don’t watch to find out. My next move awaits—an inventory of anything else scrapable. Mining ships don’t carry extraneous gear, but if I find some, I can buy another delay.
Enough to let me hide in the asteroids? Park behind a big one and turn off all emissions? It may be my best shot now. Deep-mining those manuals at least told me which wire to cut to disable my friend/foe also, because hiding is pointless if I broadcast a ‘find me here’ signal.
Aside from ores, my most plentiful supply is water for my air-gen and rad-shield, gallons of it all throughout the hull, between me and space’s hard radiation. It tempts me, but I don’t have time to freeze it into blocks, even if I could pull it from the walls without tearing apart my life support equipment. Risking asphyxiation within a few hours. No, it stays put.
Other things I could discard: my clothes—well, I didn’t bring many. No fancy dress events while mining. All my entertainment is electronic. The whole bundle fits in a duffle, with room to spare. They float in the hold, forlorn.
I add any loose mining equipment I can find. Lasers, grinders, pneumatic hammers. Various explosives. Screwdrivers and wrenches for quick repairs. Even spare gears and belts go in. Then bigger equipment—I unbolt my smelter and let it float free. My mining laser.
It keeps my hands busy, but it leaves thinking time. All these machines made to pulverize asteroids, take their metals, sort them, and reform them into nice stackable blocks.
It’s a shame I can’t use them on the ship behind me.
The machines are only effective up close. But there is one increasingly inevitable time they’ll be forced in close. A few extra items won’t do much to slow pursuit, but I could perhaps share my ordeals and ambush them in return.
I set my next course, then sort through the hold to save some of the more destructive items back.
— * —
I barely have time to prepare my surprises when I round the latest asteroid and find a gap. I can run for it or play ring-around-the-rosie. I fucking run. They’ll catch up but I’ll keep some distance a bit longer.
The only statement the regs make on going extravehicular at speed is not to. I make do with the usual spacewalk procedures and a lick of common sense—and ignore the gory barroom stories about small debris explosively intersecting a human body. There are multiple million reasons not to do this, and though none scan in the immediate vicinity, current speed outruns the scanner’s range.
The same regs lack any useful guidance to survive a pirate capture, but I figure they’ll search inside the ship first, which is why I’m outside.
I clomp toward the ship’s stern trailing a makeshift bottomless metal coffin on a tether while traveling at thousands of klicks a minute through an asteroid belt. With no more acceleration to give, it feels oddly similar to being at rest since the ship and I share the same reference frame. In both cases, I’m held on by magnet boots and a cord that seems far too thin to do anything. Which makes the cord no different than the ship’s skin, for that matter. Or my spacesuit’s skin, or my body’s skin.
God, my thoughts are morbid, but overall, I feel good. I’ve stalled for 20 hours now, which has gotta make them pissed, and I’m not done. To continue the fun, I need to hide myself.
The pirate ship will now close the distance faster and I’ve no idea how good their sensors are. There are theoretical limits, which my comp helpfully provides, and I know my own sensors, but that leaves a huge gap of possibilities. So I need to be out of sight with the pirate ship still distant.
I lie back against the hull between two thruster cones and pull the coffin over me. I do this last bit unclipped, because trailing a safety tether is not a great way to hide. My mag boots have never let me down, right? And the coffin has a couple magnets to hold it—and me—in place.
I settle into place with nothing but my makeshift box, my suit, and a small plasma drill in a large pocket—my only feasible handheld weapon. It’s not much, but it has mass and nobody will want to meet the plasma end.
Now I wait. Fortunately, I’ve got time—five hours of air, among my two oxygen canisters. Fuck, I hope I don’t wait that long. My suit smells like overripe melons stuffed with gym socks.
— * —
It takes the pirates more than 3 hours of my precious oxygen to come alongside my ship. Not forever, but it seems so. I keep still the entire time, lest I bump the box loose around me. All I can do is watch the ship’s cautious approach via relayed screens, flex and relax muscles, and wish to every deity I’ve heard that my nose stops working.
I run through yet one more ‘last’ systems check, grateful for the reassurance despite knowing nothing changed. At least I have such an ability, because most suits don’t offer remote control over a ship. Most ships, in fact, use a whole crew to control it while one member is extravehicular, but a miner runs solo, and I sometimes need to nudge the ship when I’m outside it. It took me a year of runs to buy, but it was worth it.
It lets me monitor sensor readings as the pirate ship flies near. I scrub through their vidcom warnings to ‘float free with hands visible’. No funny business, etc. The ‘or else’ stays unsaid, but we both know it’s there.
I exhale the breath I don’t recall holding when the ship eases closer. My metal box disguise passes. I record everything, just in case…but by now, it’s me or them, with the dead or stranded unable to present their side of events. Still, I doubt I’m their first victim, and if I survive—I mean, when I survive—I’ll make sure to give the authorities as many facts as I can.
Their ship-docking apparatus extends, and I once more ponder an important question: how many pirates are there? At least two, to fly both ships away; and besides, like all bullies, they’ll want mutual reinforcement. On the other hand, their ship is only half again the size of my Hard Quarry…and mine carries one.
They don’t need a big cargo hold, but too many people in close quarters for asteroid-belt runs has got to…irritate, to say the least. Be hard on their air filters. I smile until I realize that’s another reason they won’t take prisoners. No space. Plus food, plus energy, plus the extra load on the recyclers. Spacers never move what they don’t need.
Three then. Two is cocky, but three means two pilots and a mechanic, or muscle. Or both in one.
I shake myself from my reverie as their dock attaches to my ship with a shudder—and a clank, a not-quite-imperceptible time later, through my helmet speakers. Then the quieter sound of the airlock mechanisms.
I can’t wipe my hands, but I resettle my glove over my machinery’s remote. I can handle three. Here goes.
Two people float into camera view through the port, helmets peeking around the bulkhead from opposite sides before moving from the airlock. I name the one in the lead Brute; he must weigh 120 kilos under his suit, a huge spacer. The other is normal, bigger than me, but unremarkable in any spacer bar. I christen him Charlie.
They float inside the airlock hatch. Chatting on their internal comms, I assume. The hold, I mentally exhort them, my lips in a tight grin. Go for the hold.
Brute steps toward the bridge.
— * —
A mining laser is an interesting beast. The overall apparatus is substantial, but most of that is power. The laser is in a small aperture connected to a flexible arm. It’s designed to change the origin and angle to carve ores for later smelter digestion.
The flexible tube and small aperture meant I could string the laser itself through a wall. The rest had been jettisoned, including the robot arms, so I had to line the aperture up with a camera. Once someone obscures the little mark I made on the short corridor’s other side, I can let 'er rip.
Brute does so. I press the button.
The laser cuts through rock and ore. My question is whether it will immediately cauterize the wound. My answer is a red liquid spray from Brute’s side.
Part of me panics—loose liquid on board—even though I expect it. Another part howls in feral triumph.
A bright spot suddenly forms less than 10 centimeters from my visor. The metal hull disappears as a small hole opens in my ship. The largest part of me freezes, my heart solid and in my throat.
It could have been me.
I swallow the lump back down. Twice. The laser pulses off. Crystalline snowflakes fill my coffin in the moist air that leaks from the hole. A thin sheen of ice crystals covers my visor.
Most spacers aren’t claustrophobic. Or agoraphobic. Tucked against the outside hull of my spaceship, held only by a few magnets and my slap-dash welding, surrounded by snowflakes from my fucking breached hull, I felt both at once.
My comp once again instructs me to calm myself. I pull some deep breathes, burning more oxygen but slowing my heart. Okay.
Mental note. Lasers, fucking powerful enough to burn through asteroids, when set off inside a ship, sure as hell will render said ship less than 100-percent secure.
Also, pirate pursuit or not, I will be a lot more careful where I aim the fucking thing vis-a-vis my whereabouts in the future. More miners die from their own carelessness than any other cause—combined. I’ve absolute zero excuses and could be dead right now.
I still can be.
After a deep breath and another swallow, I refocus on the viewer. Charlie, back near the airlock, looks all around. I imagine him screaming in his helmet, either for help or to cuss, and bare my teeth. He’s out of trap range, so no surprise for him, not yet.
Speaking of traps, I do a quick double-check. The grinder has no range, so it should be fine. The explosives—well, they aren’t aimed at me. Either they’ll leave the ship intact, or they won’t.
Brute writhes back into view before his purposeless movements stop. I don’t know if he’s out from blood loss or put under by his suit, but he’s in a bad spot. The suit is vented, though my ship no longer leaks—a quick check shows the hull’s water layer froze solid enough to stop this small hole, and the backup hull foam oozes into the opening, now half its previous size.
Charlie grabs Brute and pokes at his suit. He pulls a kit from Brute’s back and extracts two patches. One goes over the hole in front, the other in back, and Brute’s manhandled back toward the airlock. Charlie stands angled to my camera, hands on hips. He shakes his head a couple times. Then he turns back to the control room and yanks a dire looking pistol from a pocket holster.
He creeps along, head tracing from the hole in the wall through where Brute was, and floats out of my current camera view. Another camera shows him yank the laser aperture from the wall. He wrenches it and turns it back on itself—if I fire now, I’ll kill it. He also avoids my grinder trap, a poor one but one I had hoped might work anyway.
Hand over hand, the pirate creeps to the bridge where, after a thorough search—he spins in a circle—Charlie discovers I’m not there. Then he learns I disabled manual controls. Charlie would need to break the code locks to override my remote. He stands before the consoles for a long minute, then turns to my empty suit holder and floats.
A quarter hour has passed since they boarded. Fifteen more minutes of me alive and one fewer pirate to deal with. I flex my knees to celebrate.
Charlie glides back to the airlock. Smug bastard. If only I had another trap along the way, to surprise him—but the best I can do is open doors or turn the ship. Neither would hurt him, and both would give away that I can, in fact, pilot remotely. So I do nothing until he reaches the hold.
Ever since the creation of gunpowder, miners have used a series of fun substances to concussively fracture rocks. The result isn’t laser cut, but it delivers a much more satisfying kinetic thump. Affix the plastex charge in the right spot—say, one carved with laser and drill, guided by the asteroid’s seismo—to break a large rock into sundry small rocks, then sort through and grab the useful bits.
So, explosives. Tape debris around them and affix to walls. Now it’s a bomb; crude, but effective. I had thought pirates would explore the hold first, to discover their illicit booty, so that’s where I rigged my biggest, explosive trap…the only multi-person trap. The laser was to catch the remainder if they didn’t all pile into the hold together.
My problem is I couldn’t test it. I need the blast to not tear my ship apart, thanks muchly, but to shotgun the debris enough to tear apart pirates. I set them all to go at once; these I can’t aim, and they’ll damage each other, and won’t surprise anyone else. I just wish I had more pirates in the area. Or more of Charlie.
I dial in the minimum size, but fuck it, I have to eliminate the pirates. I thumb the blast size up some amount and press the trigger before my second thoughts can stop me.
My body shakes and pitches. I bang into my coffin disguise and break its magnetic seal. The ship convulses closer again and the magnets grab, knocking me back and into the ship. My viewscreen fills with a cloud of particles and gasses.
No gravity to settle things means the nuts and washers bounce their way around the hold, the walls sapping a bit of momentum each time. One breaks a camera.
New camera view. In it, Charlie floats in the hold, leaking from multiple spots in his right arm and leg. His pistol’s gone, also. I pull a clenched fist down in front of me, though his torso appears intact as he thrashes.
He stills, but doesn’t pass out. The red streams die off as he floats in the hold. I zoom the camera; his suit’s arm and leg are both loose, so they vented, but the torso has the taut look of maintained pressure.
Emergency tourniquets. By the stillness, I wager some auto-injected painkillers also. At least my ship has cost him a literal arm and leg.
He’s no longer graceful. He grabs a handhold with his uninjured arm to stop floating and rotating, but he’s clumsy as he pushes back to the airlock. Unbalanced. Bummer for him but better for me.
Codes state airlocks must be usable with one hand. I’ve practiced on mine. It’s not easy, even uninjured. I even practiced left-handed, despite the fact any wound which disables one arm will doom me. Shit, a mining run has an assload of down-time. I fill it any way I can.
Charlie’s left hand functions well enough to grab handholds, but he’s clumsy and can’t work the airlock.
He bangs it with his fist, as if that’ll help, then floats before it with a slight anti-clockwise spin. Until the airlock swings open.
Enter pirate number three.
— * —
The newcomer is slight, similar to Charlie. He needs a name. Creativity exhausted, Fuckhead will do.
I run through my mental math again. The brute is dealt with. Charlie, wounded. Fuckhead is the pirate ship’s pilot? Must be. If they carried more muscle, they’d’ve come for the initial take-down.
This is my chance to take them all out.
The problem: all my booby traps are gone and Fuckhead’s armed.
That leaves a surprise attack, but I’m on the wrong side of the hull and can’t sneak in through the airlock. Especially not with Charlie there to notice me and in radio contact. Or Brute could radio the other two if he’s not unconscious. It won’t work if anything gives me away.
I pry open my camouflage coffin and stand. I take a few seconds for further thought as I shake blood back into my dozing limbs and let the worst pins and needles storm through my feet.
The only feasible ambush choice is the umbilical between the ships. My eyes settle on it and run along to the other ship. The other, now unmanned, ship.
I am one of the denser asteroids in the field—awake for hours and high on adrenaline excuses nothing. I curse myself as my mind races. Three pirates, now inside my ship. Me, outside my ship. Their ship, attached to mine, vacant. Perhaps they left the airlock unbarred. If not, my plasma cutter will give me one way in, if I have enough time to use it.
While I’m here, I pull the plasma cutter out and slash a quick, unauthorized, incredibly unrecommended change to the drive system. Then I holster it back in my oversized suit pocket and, anchoring my line, flip my magnetic boots up and away from the hull.
I can’t let my boots clanking across the hull give me away.
I hold the ship over my head and work my way along it. Transferring the safety lines takes too much time, makes me grind my teeth, but even contemplating being untethered makes me dizzy. I check the vid screen to reassure myself. Fuckhead’s slow and meticulous hold inspection satisfies as entertainment, as much as the broken lenses reveal. I’ve obviously made an impact.
Fuckhead’s cautious; he leads with his pistol.
I’m halfway to the tube when he finishes the hold. He must have decided there are no more booby traps. I’m so sorry to disappoint, but if I survive this, I might keep more on ship.
When I survive this.
Fuckhead zips around the ship, hold to control room. He prods at the computer—not even attempting control. More like he’s doing something while thinking.
I don’t know how much longer I have. Bet it ain’t much. I stretch my arms and try to move faster.
He straightens and looks right at me.
I flinch back as he flings himself toward me. Panic response, until I remember I’m not in the ship. My safety line saves me, which is why I’ve got it, but I berate myself as I reel back down. Needing my tether means I done fucked up somewhere. I almost did the pirate’s job for them. Again.
Fuckhead’s helmet fills my view. He floats before the lens and the camera goes black. Then the next camera, watching down the hall, blacks out. A few seconds later Fuckhead speeds to the airlock. He works his hands and I glimpse what he holds. Emergency electrical tape.
Then I can see only the hold. No pirates visible.
Worse, I’m still meters from the lock and without any idea how long until they come through, or in what order. Fuckhead acts smarter than the others, and it won’t take him long to figure out that if I’m not inside the ship, there’s only one other alternative.
I’m screwed. I’ve no more options. I pull the plasma cutter out again. The max cut is 10 centimeters—enough to reach my heart. Except I don’t know how quick it would be. Likely agonizing—how long do people live without oxygen? Minutes of space exposure doesn’t sound like the easy way out. The base of the spine might be better, but my helmet’s in the way.
Plus, I can’t do that to myself. The problem with pain is how much it hurts. That whole survival thing.
Slow asphyxiation would be better, which, in a weird way, opens possibilities. I slice my attached safety line and shove myself toward the Hard Quarry’s airlock and affixed umbilical.
Two meters. One dangling safety line, easy to attach and exacting to disconnect. I take the loose end in hand and clip it to the airlock’s handhold bar as I pass. The clip connects. I grab hard on the line and bounce against the umbilical, then pull myself back to the handhold.
The ship vibrates in a sharp tremor; a heavy door closing. The inner airlock.
Time’s up. The air cycle takes 20 seconds. I gotta move.
I slice a gaping cut through the umbilical wall and haul myself through. I somersault in the middle, my safety tether keeping my waist only fifty centimeters inside the sheath. Damn. It quite literally holds me back now. One more cutter swipe; leaving me without either safety harness but inside the umbilical.
I glimpse a helmet through the airlock portal. I don’t know if they see me, but no help for it now. I thumb the cutter to max length and sweep it in a wide arc, pivoting to cut through the tube, to separate the ships.
One cable is thicker than the others, tougher. A couple frantic slices to cut through, and I’m free.
Freedom. In this case, floating relative stationary a meter from The Hard Quarry.
I’m pretty sure Fuckhead notices me now.
I futilely shove against the sheathing to try and create distance and scramble up the umbilical’s core. I’ve no safety line, but as long as I stay in the tube it shouldn’t matter.
I can be trapped, though. I spin in another circle, fast as I can, and hack through the thick cable. I shove the freed segment sideways, and it drifts out of alignment. I back further up the tube as the black wedge of space widens before me, relying on momentum and a bit of friction to keep me moving.
There are two holes in the umbilical skin right before me. Odd. I’d expected the umbilical to be solid.
Two more appear. Small holes, a centimeter in diameter.
I belatedly recognize those from old crime drama holos. Bullet holes.
Fuckhead is outside the airlock.
How many bullets can a gun hold? I don’t wait to find out, but scramble harder, desperate in my desire to put more distance between us. I throw the cutter behind me for the extra bit of momentum and flail my arms to graze fingertips against either side in a desperate attempt to move faster, faster, always faster.
I don’t notice the pirate ship, but it helps me decelerate. Head first and abruptly. My vision flares white while my neck screams, and I strain to inhale. Then agony skewers my calf, and I gasp for a scream. A soundless one, because the air flies from my suit.
Fuck. Fuck. I’m hit. No air to breathe. Still hard to think. I need air back. Spare one futile wish for a fancy auto-tourniquet suit. My hands grope to my waist, my left hip. A small ripcord there. Gloved hands are clumsy. One try for the cord. Two. The cold, oh, the cold, with a fire in my calf. Three; I finally grasp it and yank.
A tourniquet strangles my leg, violently tight, but seals the rest of the suit from the puncture. The controls release fresh air. I gulp at it; tears seep from my eyes and float in the helmet. My calf freezes as the band around my leg fights for supremacy of pain.
A glint appears on the ship beside me. Shit. I’m not clear of the asteroid field yet—neither figuratively nor literally. Without radio contact to this ship, I scramble for the manual airlock levers. I hold my breath, hoping the pirates haven’t locked the manuals—never, ever lock manuals when one or more crew members are outside the ship, the regs command—and luck goes my way for once. I don’t even have my cutter anymore. The levers take too much time to turn, my body tense for the next skewering pain, my imagination overrun with images of Fuckhead climbing behind me.
The airlock edges open and I pull myself inside, slamming the door behind me. I peer through the portal as I spin the manual controls, helmet visor now splotchy with tears, waiting for Fucktard to appear from nowhere and wrench the door back open.
It finally latches and, since none of my crew remains outside the ship, I set the manual lock. Then I punch the air cycler and drift there, simultaneously laughing, crying, and hyperventilating.
— * —
Today, I receive a birthday present—and only five months early. It’s aurally gift-wrapped by two pirates cussing me and each other over the comms, which adds a shiny foil to the real present.
Today, I get a new ship.
I set the autopilot to move a klick away from The Hard Quarry and orbit it. Then I abandon my gloves and helmet and pull myself to the first aid cabinet. Painkillers first—I jab them through my suit, which is not airtight anymore anyway. The comp’s doc program instructs me to dress the wound as best I can—the bullet passed through, so I don’t need to dig it out. Also, space is relatively sterile, so I don’t need to worry about debris or infections. There will be some fucking awesome scars, even after a lunar robo-doc finishes the treatment. I brace myself and release the tourniquet, but the expected pins and needles don’t return with the blood to my leg, though a flash of dizziness flies through me. Those painkillers don’t mess around. I dread them wearing off.
Add a doctor visit to my expenses, plus a new spacesuit. On the ledger’s positive side are two missiles, assuming they’re not confiscated. It’s a small chance at profit, given I had dumped my ores.
This new ship will be fun. It’s faster than The Hard Quarry and bigger. More maneuverable. It’s not defenseless—besides the missiles, it has two guns I should learn how to use someday. Plus, as a gift that keeps giving, I discover the new ship’s comp recorded the whole encounter.
I permanently store the record. It should make dealing with certain questions easier. Based on my hearsay knowledge of salvage law, I recovered the ship after all hands abandoned it. Or will have died, for that matter, once their supplies run out, because even with my old ship airtight again they can’t go anywhere with the main thruster controls cut.
So, I’m due a trip to Luna—and no doubt many discussions with a lawyer or two and a bunch of bureaucrats. Damn parasites are why I’m out mining so much, where I can be alone. The lawyers will hit the pocketbook harder, but maybe I can pay them with the missiles. Maybe they’ll find me a reward for killing the pirates also, though likely only for a considerable percentage.
Before I leave, I have just two more tasks. I poke around the comp until I find the ID transmitter cut-out, and turn it back on. The ship’s named the Jacques Cousteau, which is a fucking awful name. No imagination whatsoever. Since it’s mine now, I can rename it if I please, and I damn well do please.
That’s not the only name change, though. I patch my suit into the comp and use it to give The Hard Quarry some final instructions. I leave the pirates a message on loop to thank them for the ship. I disclose that their new ship’s main thruster is broken, which doesn’t really matter, because the computer’s still locked. And I change the ship’s name, to something more appropriate.
The Cold Comfort.
Then I key in a lunar course, and The Sisyphean Reward and I head out. I drift away from the console and my eyelids get heavy. I let them shut. It’s been one hell of a day.
© 2020 Caleb Huitt
About the Author
Caleb Huitt is a Gemini who enjoys long moonlit walks through dark, foreboding forests – as long as they're happening to characters he's reading about. His alter ego rides motorcycles and referees roller derby bouts. He lives in Iowa with his spouse, a deaf dog, a blind pony, and a prima-donna horse and can be reached @CalebHuitt.