by Imogen Cassidy
There was a legend — of a ship — somewhere out in the belt. It was garbled. Maybe it wasn’t even a ship. Maybe it was a station, leftover from some alien civilisation that grew out of Earth’s primordial ooze and evolved before dinosaurs ruled, or maybe they were dinosaurs, space dinosaurs who saw that a planet was a mug’s game and got out when the going was good . . .
Got out… but didn’t get far.
Earthers didn’t realise that the belt was so huge. If there was a ship out there why hadn’t the Alpha or Beta station found it?
It wasn’t for lack of searching.
Beta Station was a rough place, cobbled together from scrap and sweat. It’d had been a hard slog, to get an independent base for those miners less than happy about working for the Company, and for Alpha. A shuttle deigned to deliver miners there rather than Alpha after a substantial bribe, and years after that Alpha finally realised they were paying the wrong people.
You couldn’t be a miner on Alpha any more. Well. You could. But you weren’t a real miner, even with your fancy ships and your white uniforms and your gravitational spin. Some still went that way, and Alpha paid them a living wage and they had quarters with beds and food and regular gravity. But those miners never made the big finds, those miners never came back to earth with enough cash to buy actual, real, land, those miners were just…
Carrington Liu was a real miner. She missed Beta right now, although she was pretty sure once she got back she’d be longing to be out again, but she’d been out for longer than usual.
It wasn’t the first time she’d taken a chance and ventured out further than was strictly safe, and luck willing, would not be the last, but it was the first time she was without enough power to keep her comfortably warm and it was definitely the first time she’d had to set off an emergency beacon.
Six years. Some people don’t last this long. Some people don’t last one.
I suppose I should consider myself lucky.
It was hard to do that, though, when she was far enough away that the Earth was little more than a slightly blue coloured dot on her sensors and the station wasn’t visible at all and she may as well have been floating in a sea of lava what with her suit having only two hours of life outside the ship and her nearest communication was on a seven minute delay.
The radio crackled. “I’m going to try to reach you, Liu, you know that, but fuel is short and it’s taking time to get the vectors right.”
She sighed, then keyed up the comm.
“Undertsood, Harris. Really. I mean, I’m just dying here. No big.” The delay would mean he probably wouldn’t laugh, but she had to keep up appearances.
There wasn’t anything else to do.
For the first four hours she’d checked systems. Methodically, the way she’d been taught back in school, back on Earth, when things like gravity were a given as well as something that you didn’t think it was possible to miss. There was a checklist, taped to the roof (or what would normally be the roof, if she was strapped into the pilot’s seat—which she wasn’t because there was no point right now) and she’d gone through everything on it, even though in her heart she knew exactly what the problem was and exactly the only way to fix it…
…was to rely on people like Harris.
There was one way to get them here faster. One way she knew she’d probably have to use, in the end, and the one thing that would definitely save her life, but she knew, she knew to the second how long she had before she had to pull that card and while she was pretty damned certain she’d have to do it in the end there was no way she was going to until the very last minute.
Six years. Six long, hard working, gravity sapping years, and she deserved something out of it, didn’t she? She’d worked harder than any of them. She’d spent the bare minimum of time on station to stop bone degradation, she’d never blown her savings on booze or drugs, she’d kept the ship in as good shape as it could be and this is what she got for it.
She’d have to send the message in thirty-two minutes if it was going to get to him in time.
She pulled herself into her chair and wrenched down the program pad, typing in data with the ease of long practice. She kept her eye on the clock as she worked, each minute passing like a nail in a metal coffin. Tried to keep the cursing to a minimum Not ladylike Carrington, you don’t want lao lao to scold…
She scolded anyway. Nothing about Carrington was good enough for Grandma.
Until she’d decided to go to space.
It was a rough world on the station. There were finders a constant stream of them pulling together the money to get up here with the promise of making it big. There were the engineers and the ship builders, the farmers and the traders, the fast talkers and that tiny group of station born who had the odd look in their eyes of never walking on the ground and never wanting to. The horizon they knew curved upwards and gravity came from spin and could be turned on and off.
And then there were the leeches. She’d shaken a few of them off this time around. Evasive flying was a specialty of pilots who didn’t want their finds stolen. The danger wasn’t just that they’d get back before you and give away the location of your find though. Boris had warned her—made her put a few safety measures in that even she’d thought were over the top, because there were some who were more clever. Sneaks who got outside without clearance—who sabotaged ships and salvaged what was left over, who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a finder if it meant they could claim the find they’d done all the work to get.
You learned how to protect yourself and you avoided getting on the wrong side of the right people and you kept your head down and you did your job. If a leech got you, you took your lumps and you made sure everyone knew their damned name.
Or more often—you died.
There were no police out here, save the Alpha station security force, and the respect they gave to finders could be counted on a hand with no fingers.
She sent out the signal. The footage was grainy and shaky, but you could see it was alien. No human had managed to make something that big out here. Not even Alpha station had the resources. There was enough metal to make a thousand more finder ships in one frame of the footage. At least—it looked like metal.
Usually she didn’t take film of a find at all—the penalties for a false report were huge and most people didn’t risk it and any way, a clever miner wouldn’t pay you until the find was safely tucked in the cargo hold of a shuttle to go back to Earth. They’d cheat you, naturally. As much as they could get away with. Still, there was a kind of honour. As a miner, if you wanted the best finders to work for you? You only cheated them a little.
This find though . . . it was obvious this was something that had never been seen before. It was worth a lot more than a lump of iron ore or a uranium deposit or a dead drifter. This was something that would change the universe.
Eight minutes passed more agonizingly slower than the six hours she’d already been stuck here. “Are you kidding me, Carrington? Why’d you keep this to yourself? Never mind that I’m already on my way.”
You’d better be, she thought. “No funny stuff, Harris. I mean it.”
He didn’t answer.
She spent the next hour programming her beacon, using a few work arounds Boris had taught her when she first got up. They were old codes, hard to crack but easy to generate, and she was pretty certain Harris, with his fresh face and fancy ship, would be as flustered by them as the higher ups at Alpha.
Then she loaded her gun, sat by the airlock, and waited.
Her ship didn’t have a name. She was simply “the ship” and it was a habit of miners to call their ships that. You knew whose was who because you had your berth and you stuck to it and if you were on station people knew. She shared a berth with Harris when she first started, and then she’d shared one with Hayden, who’d died, and now . . . well. If someone was in her berth when she got back to station they were new and they were soon told not to be there next time she docked.
She was senior enough to have that privilege. There were little rituals of rank that they had to adhere to, if the society was going to work.
The society had to work.
If you fired a gun on station in the wrong spot you killed everyone.
The only person who ever saw your ship was you—or your partner if you were lucky enough (or generous enough) to have one. Ships docked at station behind massive steel doors—not even Beta stinted on the material for airlocks—and ships communicated by radio only. No visuals. Visual took too much bandwidth. It was one of the things that took some adjusting to, the first time you got up here, no face time when you were working. It suited Carrington fine. She didn’t tend to get on with people face to face. Too surly, Lao Lao said. Mama said she was just shy.
Lao Lao always knew better.
Carrington knew what her ship looked like. She’d built it, piece by piece, in the vacuum, the small space they’d managed to rent with the last of the money she’d saved. She’d made it as fast and as nimble as she could, and if it was smaller than most well, that was the fault of inflation and the naivety of a new finder who may have thought she had all the tricks but wasn’t the best at bargaining.
If only she’d been able to bring Lao Lao up with her. They would have withered under her glare and given her everything she asked for. Carrington would have the best ship in the Finder fleet. Although truly Carrington already thought that about hers. Most finders did, she guessed.
Six years and nothing had gone wrong. Nothing she couldn’t fix with her bare hands, or put on a suit and weld together in the deep dark. She knew every inch, every screwed together panel. Which was why the checks were making her angry. As far as the ship was concerned she should be moving. As far as the ship was concerned, they were perfectly fine.
Comm spluttered. “Carrington I’m close enough for no delay now.”
Carrington. Great he was going to try to pull that card.
“Is anyone with you?”
“No. And I’m not stupid; I wouldn’t tell anyone something like this.”
Because then he would have to share the profit.
She gripped the stock of her gun, and checked her suit seals. This could be bad.
“How did you find it? What were you doing out there?”
“What do you damned well think I was doing, Eric. My job. As always.”
“You never really do anything else, do you?”
“I’m running out of oxygen to swear at you, fucknuckles.”
“Aaww I love it that you still call me that.”
She could see the display from where she was sitting. Eric was closer than she’d thought he would be—he must have splurged on those new thrusters. Probably with her money. Bastard.
He didn’t need this find. Not as much as she did. It was going to hurt like buggery to give half up to him. Just her luck that he was the closest ship and the first to get her emergency beacon.
“Grappling hooks are out, Carrington. I’m coming in slow.”
“Jesus, Eric you still fly like a drunken wombat, you know that right?”
“I fly with style, thank you very much, just like I do everything else.”
She didn’t dignify that with a response.
There was a shudder and a clang of the hook connecting and a wrench as her ship joined to his. The lurch in her stomach had a lot more than just g-force behind it.
She arranged herself so she was upright and wedged against the hull, cocked the pistol and aimed it squarely at the airlock.
Sensors were dodgy on cobbled together ships like the ones they had to build, but Boris’s communications when she’d still been Earthbound had led her to do a lot of research. The bag she’d brought up with her contained a suit, her cash, supply rations, a letter from Lao and some very specific tools, packed in a very specific way, that didn’t get confiscated as soon as she got on station. Customs weren’t official, there. Passports were glanced at, but only as a way of working out what language they needed to speak to get you to understand that there was only one rule on station, and that was you looked after yourself.
She’d come up better prepared than most, thanks to Boris, and when she built her ship she’d made it one of the most sensitive instruments in the fleet. She knew she could go out further because she knew what she was heading into.
Still, when she got the signal, she’d thought it was a ghost. Nothing out here was that big. Nothing but…
There was a legend of a ship somewhere, out in the belt.
So she’d checked the systems and when they’d come up clean (as she should have known they would) she’d turned the ship in the right direction and given it the thrust it needed to get there. She could coast for two days on minimal fuel, doze, listen to some music maybe. Write a letter to Lao because she hadn’t for a few months and if she didn’t soon she’d be in for an angry tirade (with a friendly post-script from her mother of course). Relax.
Some people couldn’t take the solitude and cracked after a few jobs. If they were lucky they got sent back down to Earth with a payload and shunted into the system. If not… well. There were jobs that needed doing on station. Jobs with people and noise in the light and the warmth.
Carrington liked the silence.
There was a hiss as the airlock opened and Carrington’s ears popped as the pressure adjusted itself. Harris, being a sensible man most of the time, was not obviously armed, but he did have his suit on—a fact Carrington noted with one raised eyebrow.
He returned it, then nodded at the gun. “You really think I was going to try to take this from you, Liu?”
At least he dropped the Carrington.
“Harris, I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”
He flashed a grin. That was the problem with Harris. He was all flash. Blond hair and white teeth and brown skin and nothing underneath.
“I’m not as stupid as you think I am Carrington. I’m sure you’ve coded the location, and I’m sure it’s something only you can decode.”
“You flatter me.”
“I’m not against sharing fairly Carrie.”
“Not how I remember things.”
“Are you still upset about that?”
“Forty thousand Harris. I could have sent that to Lao Lao and been back on Earth by now.”
“And then you wouldn’t have found this.”
They looked at each other.
She didn’t lower the gun. She was proud that her arm didn’t shake. “Are you going to take me back?”
Harris tilted his head. “I’m guessing if I say no you shoot me and steal my ship.” She shrugged. He wasn’t wrong. His eyes narrowed and he jerked his chin. “Yeah, Carrie, I’m gonna take you back. I’m guessing they’re going to want confirmation from more than one finder for this anyway.”
She lowered the gun slightly. Some tension left Harris’ shoulders and he hoisted himself inside, glancing around the interior. It wasn’t the first time he’d been in her ship, but it had been a good long while, and she watched him take in the new panels and the modifications she’d made.
“Was what you sent me all the footage you took?” She shook her head.
“I kept the camera running as long as I could. Figured the more detail I had the better.”
Harris nodded, as though this confirmed something for him. “Can I see the rest?”
It had been enormous. On approach, Carrington had to remind herself of the math, because her brain just wouldn’t accept that no one had found it before her.
When she’d gotten closer, though, she’d realised that some people had. Blips had showed up on her radar that she’d thought were asteroids—at first—until she started recognising shapes and realised that there were at least ten ships out here. Finders who never came back.
That was when she’d started getting suspicious. She’d set the camera rolling, and got as much footage of the thing as she could, slowed right down to a crawl and stayed well back.
Not far enough though.
The flash had been bright, bright enough to blind her. She’d hit the thrusters instinctively and that was what saved her from the fate of the ten or so blips on her radar. They hadn’t gone slow enough at the start. They’d been too close to do what she did.
One good solid thrust was all she’d gotten before the engines died. She was coasting back towards the station, but inertia could only take her so far. By the time she floated into dock she’d be dead.
“Jesus Christ, Carrie,” Harris couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the screen. “The flash . . . what do you think? Electromagnetic pulse?”
She shrugged. “Probably. Something like that. I mean, it only hit my engines, I’m thinking because I was too far out, and my backup batteries were off. Lucky for me.” Harris had thought she was an idiot for spending the money on that, but some of the leeches had some pretty horrible tricks up their sleeves these days and she’d never been more grateful.
“Those poor suckers didn’t have backups.”
“Or the flash got those too. Mine are top of the line.”
Harris nodded thoughtfully. She was a foot away from him, still gripping the gun, still suspicious. If he’d been tenser, less buddy-buddy maybe she would have put it back in the locker by now. But Harris in a good mood usually meant a Harris who thought he was going to come out of this on top.
He was fast though. And bigger than her.
When he lashed out she nearly managed to dodge. His hand gripped her gun hand and deftly disarmed her and he pushed her against the hull, grinning. “So. You going to give me the location then?” She spat at him. Not very effective in zero gravity of course, but it felt good. “Carrie, Carrie, Carrie. My engines are fine. We can sit here for another two days, and I can start demolishing your ship bit by bit until there’s nothing left, or I can tow you back into station and set you free there. You’ll have enough oxygen to drift back into dock. You’ll live. If you give me the location.”
“You know I knew you’d try this, right Eric?” she said. His grip on her shoulders was strong. Stronger than hers. But she only needed a little bit of leeway. “You know I was willing to split it. Give you half if you just did what you said you’d do.”
“Half isn’t enough.”
She shook her head. “Of that? Half would be enough to buy you a country you greedy fuck. That’s every finder’s dream out there. The ships alone would get you back to earth in style and you want it all?”
His eyes narrowed. “You think too small, Carrie. It was always your problem. Save enough money for Lao Lao and Mama and go back down to earth and be the perfect granddaughter. Why go back down at all? Earth’s a shithole, Carrie. Up here is the future. With that find I could take over Alpha. Expand.”
“You’re an idiot Harris. Even with that find Alpha still calls the shots and you know it. It takes more than money to get through to those guys.”
“Money’s a good start though, Carrie, wouldn’t you say?” He showed his teeth at her.
“Yeah if you can use it right. Last I saw you could have gone back to Earth three times over Eric. Why are you still here? Radiation poisoning your suicide of choice? Or do you just not have anything to go back to?”
Harris snarled, bracing himself against her chair and slamming her hard against the wall. “Give me the location.” Carrington struggled against the grip he had on her arm and he laughed. “You want me to let you go.”
“Of course I do.”
“Sweetheart, you know I’m not going to do that. Give me the location.”
She struggled again, and he slammed her again, and she tasted blood in her mouth where the teeth closed on her cheek. “Fuck you Harris. It’s coded in the data pad. You’ll have to let me enter the sequence.”
“I’m not an idiot, Carrie.” He let her go, pointing the gun at her. “I’ll enter the sequence, you just tell me what it is.”
She slumped. “Fine.” He pulled down the data pad, ripping off his suit glove as he did. He had big fat hands, Harris did, and her keyboard was small.
She’d been counting on that. “Type B. O. R. I. S,” she said. “That’ll bring up the encryption key prompt.”
Harris shook his head as he typed. “You were way too attached to that old bastard, Carrie.”
“So what’s the key then?”
“Wait a second.”
The surge when it came flattened the last of her batteries and the cockpit went dark. Luckily there was enough light seeping from Harris’s ship so that she could still see him as he went limp.
She smiled. “That.”
Harris’s ship was clunky and difficult to pilot, but at least it had power and fuel. The trip back was uneventful, especially since she’d strapped Harris into the pilot’s chair of her ship and periodically shut the airlock between them so she didn’t have to listen to him shouting.
She had to stop herself from singing on the way back. Boris’ trick with the datapad had seemed excessive when she first started, but she had never been more grateful to the old man than she was right now, even if Lao had never forgiven him for leaving her on Earth.
She was in the middle of feeding Harris his ration when the proximity alert went off. Ignoring his protests, she pushed off and back into his ship, keying up comm.
“Beta station this is Carrington Liu, requesting vector approach for berth twelve.”
The speakers crackled. A dry, laconic voice answered back. “Liu I don’t know if you’ve noticed but you’re flying the wrong ship. You and Harris an item again?”
She grinned. “Fuck no. And trust me, Jen, I know I’m flying the wrong ship. It’s only temporary.”
“Got your message thirty-six hours ago. We thought we’d lost you out there.”
“So did I for a while. But I’m coming home now.”
Laughter from Jen, croaky and dusty. “If you hurry you’ll be back in time for your wake. Parker’s got some high quality booze here.”
“Tell him I’m buying.”
“Are you kidding? You know how much he’ll drink if you tell him that.”
“Reckon I can afford it, Jen.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Sending you your approach lane, Liu.”
“I’m guessing it was a good trip?”
There was a muffled yell from the cockpit of her ship. Carrington hit the button to shut the airlock and the noise stopped. So did his air supply and heat, but he could do without that for the few hours into station. She wasn’t a cruel woman, after all.
“You could say that Jen. You could definitely say that.”