[An independent trader, a tyrannous Company and a battle of wits among the asteroids...]
The sky was full of Jupiter.
The great red spot was a watchful eye, glowering down over the near horizon of the tiny, misshapen moon where Jaya and her crew were busily unloading dozens of sealed crates. The feeling of being watched added to the disquiet she always felt when she was starside in nothing but a suit.
Apart from her own breathing, the only noise was the high-pitched whirring of the life-support fans in her helmet. She always sweat too much during spacewalks, whether from labor or anxiety. On full blast, the fans helped filter out the smell.
Working with her was Othiambo, the broad-shouldered engineer who went by Bo and tried to hide his Venusian accent, and Paloma, who despite her inexperience as a stowage master had a nigh-unshakeable demeanor of sleepy relaxation. They were lugging their cargo out of the Rasi’s open forward hold and doing their best to deposit it in the well of a deep, black crater.
“Captain,” crackled the timid voice of Shad in her ear.
“What’s up?” she asked, watching with dismay as the crate she set down bounced away in the minuscule gravity.
“I sent a beam to Callisto like you said,” explained the pilot, “but somebody else picked up.”
“He says he speaks for Prax, now.”
“Trouble?” Bo maneuvered to face her with the jets of his bright white spacesuit, tirelessly maintained despite being a bit long in the tooth. He contrasted strikingly with Paloma, whose suit was relatively new but already covered in decals and showing wear around the joints.
Jaya shook her head, then, realizing the gesture was lost in her helmet, replied, “Not sure. Someone is fielding Prax’s calls for him.”
“The Patrol finally post him?” Paloma said, gently adding to the growing pile.
“Maybe,” Jaya turned carefully back to the ship. “Finish this up double-time, just in case.”
“In case of what?” said Bo, “We aren’t doing anything illegal.”
“Never know. I’m going up.”
Inside, Jaya was grateful to get her helmet off. The stink of sweat was washed mercifully away by ozone and recycled air, sweet as a summer breeze. The Rasi wasn’t particularly large, fast, or pretty, but compared to a spacesuit it was the palace of a Mercurian Bupati.
“Put me on,” she said as she surmounted the ladder to the cramped bridge. Wood shavings drifted around the room, the product of Shad’s whittling habit, and he was hastily sucking them up with the compact vacuum he kept under his crash-couch. The green light on the dashboard indicated an open call.
“Sorry, sorry about the mess,” he said when he saw her, tossing the headset in her direction. It drifted into her waiting hand, trailing its cable behind it.
“Jaya here,” she said, holding it to her ear. After a moment’s light-delay, a crisp, professional voice replied.
“This is Director Michael Costa of The Otared Solar Company, how may I help you?”
“Sorry, must be a crossed beam,” Jaya said, glancing at Shad; “we meant to call Praxidike Supply.”
“You have the correct receiver code. I’m currently overseeing its closure.”
“Closure? Prax sold to the Company? Why?”
At that Shad, who’d been quietly cleaning up shavings, gave her a wide-eyed look.
“He sold to us, yes,” the voice on the other end said, “I’m not at liberty to disclose more than that.”
“...I’ve got a hold’s worth of food ready for pickup. Am I gonna see payment for that?”
“Are you Jayachandra Xiu of the Rasi, registered out of Mars? Dropping off foodstuffs on Leda?”
“Unfortunately, we won’t be continuing your contract.”
“Regulations are that we get paid for services rendered.”
“The business to whom that applied no longer exists,” the Company man said casually. Jaya replied with a parade of curses from across the system.
“Of course,” the man went on, spite creeping into his voice, “I wouldn’t lean on regulation, if I were you.”
“Really. Transferring food to a Jovian world without proper certification is illegal.”
“Wha-” Jaya guffawed, “I wouldn’t call Leda a world. It’s barely an pebble!”
“I doubt the Patrol would see it that way,” said the Company man, but before Jaya could respond the com went silent. She removed the headset, leaving it floating for Shad to retrieve.
“What happened?” he said, pulling it in. “Who was that?”
“Otared, letting us know we’re out of work.”
“Ot- wait, what?”
“Prax got bought out,” Jaya explained, brushing wood chips aside on her way to the hatch.
“Oh. What, erm,” Shad cleared his throat, “what are we gonna do? For money?”
“Not sure yet. Tell Bo and Paloma to put it all back. I’m heading down.”
Back outside, the two crewmen were undoing their work, dismantling the pile they’d constructed in such a rush. Bo was pushing a crate up the ramp when he spotted the captain emerging from the hold.
“Everything alright?” he asked, “Shad told us to pack it in.”
Jaya recounted her conversation with the Company man, the burly engineer growing more agitated as he listened.
“Damn them!” he said, “why didn’t they tell us sooner? Why wait for us to call them? Now we’ve got all this!”
“They’re pushin’ out further all the time,” Paloma observed coolly. “When I was a kid, it was practically Christmas when a Company ship set down.”
“Captain, we can’t take this lying down. We’ve got to take it to the Trade Commission, or even the Patrol - ”
Jaya shook her head a second time, again reminding herself it was a wasted gesture, and said, “We can’t afford a lawyer. And those self-proclaimed law jockeys who hang around the ports couldn’t stand up to the fellas the OSC keeps on retainer, anyways. No, the only thing to do is sell our cargo.”
“We could try the Starwalk Market, on Ceres,” Paloma said, “people sell all sorts of stuff there.”
“No, that’s Company land. We couldn’t undercut their prices. I’m thinking out Saturn-way.”
“That’s pretty far,” said Bo, more composed now. “We’re low on gas.”
“We can’t afford to fill up until we sell.”
“Well then, I hope Paloma laid in extra rations, because we’ll be on the float for most of that trip.”
“Actually, the pantry’s almost empty,” said the stowage master, “all we’ve got is dehydrated grub mash.”
Suddenly, Shad’s voice sounded again in their ears, somehow more uneasy than usual.
“Captain, we’re getting a call.”
“The Company, calling back?” Bo wondered.
“It’s… a Patrol gunship,” Shad said. “They want us to stay where we are.”
“Put these crates away, quick,” Jaya ordered, “and make it look nice. Like we haven't done anything wrong”
“Have we done anything wrong?”
“We’ll see,” the captain turned and went up the ramp.
“What a day,” she murmured.
A dozen terse patrolmen in black-and-silver uniforms crowded into the hold, standing between hastily secured stacks of cargo. Between them and the four Rasi crewmen, there was hardly room to turn around.
The lead officer was a tired, line-faced woman. Jaya watched her examining the Rasi’s manifest and certificate of flightworthiness with uncertainty. The planet-and-lightning bolt badge on her shoulder glistened in the flat light.
“A bit small, for a cargo ship,” the officer said. Her coil pistol hung easily on her hip, and she kept her hand right beside it, thumb looped through the holster. “I’d say it was an asteroid prospector by the look of it.”
“You’d be right,” Jaya said. “I bought her with the idea of becoming a miner.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Found something more lucrative.”
“Like transporting cheese?”
“It’s good cheese,” Jaya said, patting the nearest stack amiably, “If you want, I’ll take some out, pass it around.”
“No, thank you,” the officer handed the papers over. “We got a tip about the illegal transportation of foodstuffs to a Jovian moon.”
Jaya did her best to sound surprised.
“Who told you that? The Company?”
“Well, we were licensed to sell through a fella on Callisto, but his shop went belly-up before we could get there. We decided to wait on this little moon until we could decide what to do.”
“Hm,” the officer said, looking around, “you know, a lot of people trying to get around the tariff have their products dropped off nearby instead of going through customs.”
“Huh,” Jaya said, “never knew that.”
The officer sighed.
“Well, everything seems to be fine here. Except it looks like you haven’t had the reactor shield checked in a while. I’ll have to cite you for that, and require that you get it inspected as soon as possible.” She tore a ticket from the book on her belt and filled it out. Jaya’s heart sank as she took it.
“Alright, let’s up ship,” the officer said into her shoulder-mounted radio, and gestured for her lackeys to follow. They filed slowly out of the hold, and eventually, the four crewmen were left alone.
“How bad is it?” Paloma asked. The captain read the citation, eliciting exclamations and groans from the others.
“Payment will be taken from our account automatically,” she said.
“The reactor shield’s fine,” Bo grumbled, “I inspected it myself.” Shad furrowed his brow.
“What I want to know is, how did they know we were here? It’s not like we told anyone.”
“Otared. Probably reported us to protect their squeaky clean reputation,” Jaya said, “and now we’re pretty definitely in the red.”
“Of course,” Paloma said, “the Patrol comes quick when the Company calls.”
“Maybe we should try Ceres,” Bo mused. “At least we’d be somewhere solid when we declare bankruptcy.”
“No,” the captain said, “I know where we have to go”.
The Asteroid Belt, delineating the colloquial divide between “The Core” and “The Rim”, was well within the effective purview of the law, but, like any colonized region, that came with exceptions. The Belt especially was home to vast volumes that rarely, if ever, saw the black-and-silver of the Patrol.
Burges’ Planet was a largish asteroid in the heart of the Baptistina Cluster, a family of rocks the best of which were staked out by Otared. It was circled by a small boulder dubbed “Burges’ Moon”, and it was near this little worldlet that the Rasi sat in a parking orbit.
“I hate Company towns,” Paloma said as she and Jaya hung behind a seated Shad, who was waiting for the colony’s control tower to give them a berth. Bo was down with the engine.
Jaya cocked an eyebrow.
“You been to one before?”
“Nah, but every Belter hates ‘em. They crop up wherever the best mining’s at, and if a prospector who’s not with the Company needs gas, or food, or air, they bump the price way up. But if you want access to the good rocks, well, there really isn’t anywhere else to set up.”
“A lot of free traders avoid them too; their docking fees are outrageous. Most of the time.”
“Yes, this is the Rasi, requesting emergency docking clearance,” Shad spoke suddenly. The green light on the dash indicated that they’d finally been given the attention of the control tower.
“Our reactor containment shield,” he said into the headset, “it’s, erm, it’s not up to code. We need to stop and make sure it’s safe.”
“You think they’ll just let us cut in on their territory?”
“Dunno. We’ll have to be quick.”
“Yes,” Shad was saying, “we were told to get it looked at asap. Could be dangerous. Our engineer is extremely inept - ”
“Wow!” Bo called from below, no doubt listening on his own headset. The pilot grinned wide.
“So the sooner we can cool jets, the better… Oh, great!
“Dock 11-A,” he said, turning off the beam, “no docking fees, thanks to our ‘emergency’ status. Now just to bring us in. Wish me luck.”
The docks were a bustle of mining rigs, barges and rock hoppers, but Jaya noted with vague distaste that almost all bore the Otared logo on their hulls. They didn’t belong here, even if they’d been given a berth. Shad weaved them through the thicket of ships with exaggerated caution, finally easing them up to their designated airlock.
“Well, you got us there,” Bo shouted. Paloma turned to the captain.
“Want me to get the cargo ready for unloading?”
“Not quite yet.”
Jaya went down to the hold and pulled one of the crates from the wall. Cracking open the lid, she removed a fist-sized plastic package and slipped it into the pocket of her tattered coverall. As she did so there was a knock on the cargo hold airlock, and she re-stowed the crate before pushing herself over and glancing through the viewport. Standing there was a little old man in the gray uniform of an OSC Port Authority agent.
“Hey there,” Jaya pulled the door open.
“Hello, Captain,” the agent said. He had a face like a frog and, despite his stout figure, moved gracefully in the microgravity.
“May I come aboard?” he asked, and Jaya moved aside to let him in. He didn’t look around, merely consulted the tablet he carried with him.
“I understand your reactor shield isn’t secure?”
“Oh, it’s secure. But the law wants us to have somebody corroborate that.”
“How many crew?”
“Four, including myself. They’re around here somewhere.”
“Well, we’ll get somebody in here to do the reactor inspection.”
“Thanks… By the way, is it alright if we do a little business? While we’re here?”
“Depends. You said you needed an emergency landing, not a commercial - ”
Jaya took the package from the pocket, tossing it over to the startled Company man. It patted against his chest and he caught it, confused, before tearing it open at Jaya’s insistence.
“Is this - cheese?”
“Straight from the green hills of Earth. Real cheese from living cows.”
The agent stared.
“Uh, normal ones?”
The old man pulled from the package a glistening white wheel, and, after examining it in the cool light of the airlock, broke off a piece and nibbled it.
By the end of the first day, they’d made enough to fuel up.
By the end of the second, they’d refilled the pantry.
Protein packs and modified yeast couldn’t compete with the real deal. Farm animals, especially big ones like bovines, were opulent luxuries out in the Belt, and for many of the Belters who’d migrated out it was like reuniting with an old lover - at a price far lower than their Company landlords would demand for the same kind of extravagance. Once tried, they treated it like ambrosia, hurrying to tell their friends, family, even strangers.
At the dawn of the third day, there was a line of eager cheese shoppers out into the dockyard.
“How many stacks have we got left?” Jaya asked, getting ready to open the airlock to the morning rush.
“Six, not countin’ the stack we owe that inspector,” Paloma said. Bo opened the nearest crate.
“This is great. I feel like an angel, showering them with holy mana.”
“Money’s not bad either,” Jaya said, glancing through the viewport. A trio in port authority wear were making their way to the Rasi.
The customs agent had returned, flanked now by two more who had the distinction of carrying guns, which they brandished menacingly as they began to shoo the gathered customers.
“Hey!” Jaya called, tugging the airlock open, “What the hell?” The agent was gliding over.
“You’ll have to go.”
“You’ll have to go.”
“What’s wrong is we have to go?”
The two guards re-joined their leader, weapons in hand.
“I’d thank you not to chase off my customers like that!”
“You’ve had two days to get your engine looked over, that’s more than enough time.”
“Well, now I’ve got to have my engineer patch it up. That takes a minute.”
The agent scowled.
“This is private property. We have a right to protect it from boarders.”
Jaya’s blood pressure rose at the implication. She felt her face redden as she clenched the handle of the airlock door tightly.
“My man needs time to make sure everything is working smooth,” she said coolly.
“Are you threatening to push us out with a faulty reactor? 'Cause that’s awfully dangerous. For everybody,” she rested her hand on the butt of her pistol.
The security guards tensed. Their toad-faced man eyed her with indignation.
“Alright,” he said finally, turning to leave, “you have one more day. Don’t be here tomorrow.”
Watching them depart, Jaya wondered if those two would have used their guns, if their boss hadn't relented. She was a fine shot, one had to be in her line of work, but nevertheless the thought of getting into a shooting match with the Company made her stomach turn. Today would be there last day on Burge’s.
They remained open, but it seemed the guards had been effective in warding the people off, and the line never rematerialized. They’d only managed to sell a single stack before the lights dimmed to signify evening.
“It’s funny, but I could have sworn we sold cheese to both of those guards yesterday,” Bo grumbled as he closed the airlock door.
They ran final checks and secured the cargo for transit. Leaving a stack to be picked up by the inspector, they cast off around “midnight.”
“Shad, point us at Saturn,” Jaya said, reflecting that they’d no doubt be able to sell what cheese remained and even pick up new work on Titan or Rhea. At the very least, it would be good to get out from under the Company’s shadow.
Not long after, another ship pulled away from Burge’s Planet. It was huge, thrice the size of the Rasi, and it laboriously turned its nose after the departing free-trader before burning hard after it.
The crew woke to a blaring alarm.
When Jaya rushed up to the bridge in her pajamas, Shad was already there, clad in a bathrobe and anxiously strapping himself into his crash-couch.
“We’re being shot at!” he yawped. Jaya paused in the hatch.
“I don’t know!”
“Is it penjarah?” Paloma slurred, stumbling through the door of her cabin drowsily.
“Thought the Patrol pushed all the pirates out of the Belt,” Bo burst from his own cabin, hastily zipping up his coverall.
“So they say.”
“Who’s shooting at us?” Jaya demanded again as another explosion sent the ship’s frame vibrating. Shad looked overwhelmed.
“I’m - I’m trying to find out! There’s another ship riding our wake, a big one - ”
Just then, the com light turned green.
“Hello?” Shad breathed, scrabbling to turn on the headset. His face slowly drained of color as he listened, taking it off again and handing it to the Captain.
“The other ship,” he said, “it’s the Company.”
Jaya snatched the headset and threw it on.”
“ - repeat, do not attempt to contact any other ships. If you do not comply, you’ll be destroyed. Please respond.”
“This is Jayachandra Xiu of the Rasi, what in the hell is this?”
“Rasi, you are in possession of fuel and provisions that are property of the Otared Solar Company. We possess and will exercise the right to defend ourselves from piracy. We have already fired several warning shots.”
“We - ” Jaya steadied herself as the ship rang out again, “we didn’t pirate a thing, we bought those supplies!”
“They were sold without the authorization, and they remain the property of the OSC. You are unarmed. Prepare to turn them over and be boarded.”
“Or - ” Jaya hung up.
“Bastard,” she growled.
“What’d they say?”
“They mean to gut us and leave us drifting, punish us for our little incursion on their territory,” Jaya said, “Bo, get to the engine. Paloma, strap in.”
“You got it, Cap’,” Paloma pulled herself into the nearest crash-couch. Bo raced down the ladder to the engine room.
“Pick a rock and burn hard,” Jaya said, “something big, please and close. Real close. Bo, you set?”
Jaya leaned back in her chair.
The Belt was a terrible place to hide. Despite how the vids made it appear, the ruins of the lost planet were thin and spread out. Their only hope was to reach some chunk large enough to lose themselves on. Thankfully, the Baptistina Cluster had a few of those, some of them long since mined out and riddled with tunnels.
They burned for hours that felt like days, pinned to their chairs, until finally the momentary release of the flip-and-burn arrived. Shad’s bathrobe was soaked with sweat.
“Everybody alive? No strokes?” he croaked, swinging the ship around to begin slowing it down. Through the viewport they saw their pursuers thunder eerily past, silent thrusters cutting out suddenly to match their quarry. They were big, and it would take them a lot longer to turn about, or so Jaya hoped.
“Alive,” Paloma said, somehow still apparently calm.
“Captain?” Jaya took a deep, unencumbered breath.
The dashboard lit up with alerts as their enemy fired another volley.
“Okay. Here goes.”
The thrusters roared to life for the long slow-down burn. Jaya’s vision narrowed, but she clung to consciousness, battling to remain aware with all her will.
Finally, they arrived. The asteroid in question was an empty shell, a ghost town with plenty of gaping holes large enough for a ship like theirs to nestle in. Without needing to be told, Shad made a beeline for the closest one.
“How much time do we have?” Jaya asked at once, undoing her straps.
“Um… maybe half an hour?”
“I’m gonna need you to do a bit better than that. Aslo, get them on a beam for me.”
“Paloma, still awake?”
“Yeah,” the stowage master replied, weaker than before.
“Get suited up, and grab your gun. We’re going outside.”
The sky was empty.
Nothing stood between Jaya and infinite light years except the thin skin of her suit. She felt insubstantial, light as a ghost, the pocked surface of the asteroid barely holding her back from floating off into oblivion. She focused on keeping her breathing steady.
The only break in the void was the blinking light of the Company freighter parked in a wide orbit. Its point defense gun could, at any moment, wipe them from the asteroid’s face. Thinking about it didn’t make her feel better.
Paloma stood beside her, as comfortable as ever, decorated helmet cast upward.
“Here they come,” she said, mostly recovered from their taxing flight. Belters tended to have weaker bones than their ground-bound fellows, and Jaya was surprised she hadn’t cracked a rib. Although, knowing her, she might just be gritting through the pain. They’d all need to be examined when they got back to civilization.
She continued to distract her mind as a sleek, short-range shuttle set down noiselessly a safe distance off. If only things made noise in space, like they did when you were on a good honest planet, she thought she might feel a little better.
A hatch on the shuttle’s side opened, and ten gray-suited figures poured out, each armed and jetting toward them with the ease of experienced spacers. They were badly outmatched.
“Alright, you can shut it off,” Jaya said, and Paloma flicked off the emergency transponder she’d brought to signal their position to the Company ship.
“You think they’ll shoot us?” she asked. An edge of fear had managed to creep into her tone.
“No,” Jaya said. Then, “I hope not.”
She glanced up again at the quickly orbiting freighter. Right now, she knew, Shad and Bo were running the numbers, and getting the cargo ready in the forward hold.
“Rimworld trash,” a clipped, disdainful voice came over the radio. The foremost of the Company men stopped a few yards away, handgun trained on them. His fellows followed his lead.
“Company lapdog,” Jaya replied.
“That’s a fine way to begin parley.”
Jaya shrugged, realizing for a third time that such gestures were muffled by her suit.
“You started it.”
“I don’t want to be here. The captain’s intent on getting your ship, but if it were my call, I’d have slagged you by now.”
“Just us two here. Not much to slag,” Jaya said.
“Why did you ask us to meet you?” The Company man sounded irritated. “Was it to get into a pissing match?”
“Actually not.” The Company ship was high in the sky now, nearly right over head.
“We want to surrender.”
“Good. Throw down your guns.”
“We will. But first I want to lay out some terms. Nobody in my crew gets hurt - ”
The Company man’s weapon flared violently, bursting the regolith at Jaya’s feet.
“Alright, no terms.”
“Drop. The guns.”
“Do as he says,” Jaya exhaled, letting her pistol sink slowly to the cratered floor. After a moment, Paloma did the same.
“Where’s your ship?”
Another blast, this one between the two Rasi crewmen, made Paloma jump back.
“The next shot’s at you.”
“Easy, easy,” Jaya placated, holding her hands up. The freighter was passing overhead. Just a moment longer.
“Where is it hidden?”
“In one of these tunnels!” the stowage-master screamed, her cool broken at last.
“Damn it, Paloma.”
“I’m sorry, Cap’.”
The Company man chuckled.
“Can’t keep your crew in line?”
Jaya glanced at the sky again. Any minute now.
“It’s that way,” Jaya said, pointing back over her shoulder.
“You’ll see it.”
“Do you think I’m kidding with this gun?”
“Just keep looking.”
For a moment, there was only the empty stillness. Then, an instant later, the Rasi exploded over the horizon, coursing from the tunnel where it lay concealed. It rocketed above them, a blazing streak, then just as quickly fired its braking thrusters, slowing it abruptly. Out of the open forward hold, dozens of blurry shapes shot like a swarm of bullets- the cargo.
At that same instant, the Company ship was positioned directly in its path, unable to move its hulking mass before the projectiles struck a split-second later. They cut through it like paper, obliterating the unarmored freighter and sending debris whirling in spectacular fashion.
It was over before Jaya realized she’d been holding her breath. The men before her were agape, their heads turned skyward, and none of them noticed she or Paloma bend over and pick up their guns.
“So,” Jaya said, “it occurs to me that you boys may be needing a ride. How does fifty rupiah a head sound?”
On Rhea, they let the men go, despite Paloma’s frequent insinuations that they’d be putting them out a bit sooner.
“How’d I do?” she’d asked as soon as they’d taken off. “Am I ready for the vids?”
“I’d say so. It was convincing to them, anyways. You make a compelling traitor,” Jaya smiled.
“And that was some deadly aim,” she’d added, as Bo emerged from the engine room looking tired.
“Shad’s the sharpshooter, I just provided a boost.”
“Thanks,” Shad projected from the Bridge, “I was sure I was gonna crash us.”
“So,” Bo said, “that’s all the cheese we had left shot out the front of the ship and exploded. What next? Greener pastures?”
Jaya gripped the ladder up to the bridge.
“I’m thinking out Saturn-way,” she said.