These aren’t the drones that deliver your online order. Loaded with cameras, sensors, and explosives, their mission is to drive themselves to a target with an algorithm in the driver’s seat. They destroy themselves along with the target, leaving behind just a pile of electronic detritus.
A sudden pounding noise woke him. Sitting up too quickly on his bunk, he cursed and grabbed at the handrail on the wall to steady himself. His right hand gripped the aging plastic; a shard peeled off and floated by as he wrenched a boot on with the left hand.
Another piece of the Sagittarius gone, Gennaji mused, idly watching it spin toward the hatch. Just like its crew. And its Captain.
Dark thoughts pushed their way to the surface; he scowled and forced them down. First things first. Survival.
He grabbed the sliver of plastic and sealed it in his pants pocket. The air filtration system had enough problems without bits of the ship stuck in it.
Both magboots firmly on now, he pushed the open/close panel. The hatch beeped but refused to open. The noise came again, and a siren sounded followed by the navigator’s voice on ship wide speaker.
“Captain to the bridge! Captain to the…”
Hamno, Gennadi swore. Seizing an emergency handle in the middle of the hatch, he twisted with both hands. The hatch popped out, dragging him halfway into the dimly lit corridor. He squeezed the rest of his two meter frame through just as the floor shuddered.
“Karel!” he shouted. “Andrzjel!”
The siren continued. He thought he could hear someone screaming in the distance.
Gennaji staggered in the direction of the command center as the corridor tilted back and forth. Hull breach? he wondered. No, it couldn’t be. Not again…
The hatch to the command center also refused to budge. Wrenching it open, Gennaji found the entrance blocked by fallen objects. Cables. Computer panel components. Overhead exposed circuitry flickered, sending wifts of smoke swirling past his face.
Pushing his way through the debris, he saw an arm dangling from the navigator’s chair. He reached the chair and turned it around.
“Orynko, are you…?”
Lena’s eyes, wide open, stared into his. Blood trickled down her forehead from a gash in her matted brown hair. He backed away, stumbling into the panel behind.
Sergey’s voice in his ear.
“Damn you, Ser—”
He spun around. Riss. Seated in the captain’s chair.
She looked down at him without expression. “Get off my ship.”
“You have no right!” he shouted.
“Get off my ship,” she repeated. She seemed to fade from his view. Smoke rose from the panels in-between them.
“You killed her! I’ll—”
Coughing, he swatted at smoke, turning back to the navigator. Lena, no…
The ship shuddered.
Gennaji’s eyes snapped open.
He was strapped in the captain’s chair. Orynko at nav. Karel at helm.
“Where’s Andrzej?” he said numbly.
A brief silence filled the command center, then Karel responded. “Down in the cargo bay, like you asked him.”
Gennaji shook his head and hid a yawn behind a closed fist. Hamno, he must have dozed off. His shoulder twinged as he replaced his hand on the command chair console. He winced, gently rotating it. That nehr woman and her kung-fu tricks. He should have had Karel teach her a lesson or two.
“What’s our status?” he asked in a slightly more authoritative voice.
“Waiting for confirmation from Zedra,” Orynko said. Her fingers danced over the console in front of her. “We should receive a ping any minute now.”
Any minute now, he thought with satisfaction. Zedra will tell us that they only received one frag from that rock, and somehow the others didn’t arrive as expected. Because of course we were able to break the quantum encryptions and intercept the teleport…
“Coming in now, Captain.”
He leaned forward in anticipation, flicking on the command console. “Andy, get ready.”
A minute passed. Another.
“What’s the word, Ory?”
She scanned her console again, then exchanged glances with Karel.
“What?” Gennaji demanded impatiently.
Karel cleared his throat. “Sir, Zedra reports they never received any frags.”
He paused. “None.”
Gennaji smiled. “So, it worked like you said, hacker! Glad we borrowed you from that mining scow.”
“Sir,” Karel said, clearing his throat again. “Zedra didn’t get any frags because none were sent.”
Gennaji hit his palm against the console in frustration. “Didn’t send any! Then…”
He narrowed his eyes and swore. That moskal’ must have sent them all directly to Ceres. Was that possible?
“Karel, I thought you said you hacked into their thrower system.”
“I did. We should have been able to intercept if they tried sending…” Karel stopped mid sentence, thinking. “You know,” he continued. “Maybe they didn’t send them.”
“Not possible,” Andrzej’s voice came over the speakers. “The Artemis cargo hold is bigger than ours, but that rock was way too much for a single haul.”
“True,” Gennaji admitted. He slapped his cheek with an open palm. Completely forgot to turn the intercom off. “So. Straight to Ceres?”
“I’ll check,” Karel offered. “This far out, it’ll take a while.” He concentrated for a few minutes while the others waited.
“Ory,” Gennaji said quietly. “Scan the bands for incoming.”
“Hunters.” He grimaced. Now that they’d pinged Zedra and were probably going to wind up pinging Ceres, every hunter out there would know their location. The Sagittarius and Artemis both had plenty of rivals. Some might be a little more aggressive than his crew.
He drummed his fingers on the console. He had no love for Clarissa Kragen or her crew, but neither was he a killer. Despite what she did, she was still the daughter of Sergey Bardish. He’d do anything for that old man.
Damn him! Gennaji thought savagely. Damn her! He did eventually get the ship, but not in the manner he wanted.
And the price had been far too high.
“Got it,” Karel said triumphantly from the helm. “Right ascension…distance vector…straight for Ceres, all right.”
“Good job. How many?” Gennaji cracked his knuckles.
The navigator made a noise of disgust.
“Sorry, Ory. Bad habit. Well?”
The pilot scanned his console. “Looks like…two frags. Huh.” He leaned back in his chair. “I would have thought at least three, a rock that size.”
Gennaji pondered this. The Artemis might have kept the third for themselves, as a hedge against losing the profit margin. The Ceres Mining Council may have given them right of capture from the lottery, but the Council was not above a little price gouging when it suited their needs.
“Let’s ping Ceres. Ory?”
“On it. Go ahead.”
Gennaji swiped the console. His own face appeared on the tiny screen. Best this junker can do, he thought bitterly. No holographic recorder. If only he had the money for decent upgrades!
“Sue, it’s Gen. We missed the target, and the target also missed theirs. On purpose. You should get a couple pieces of the puzzle soon. And you may get some guests from Mars or Luna soon. Do your best to delay them and I’ll make it…worth your while.”
He heard Karel stifle a reaction. Orynko had rolled her eyes.
“Talk to you soon. We’re coming home.”
He swiped again to save the message. “Encrypt. Then send it.”
“Aye, sir.” Orynko did as he asked with no further comment.
He looked back and forth from navigator to pilot. They seemed to ignore him.
“Hey, you have a problem, shmatochok der’mo?” he said through clenched teeth.
The veins on Karel’s forehead seemed to bulge as the man turned red. But he shook his head, mouth tightly closed.
Gennaji sat back. “Good. Set course for Zedra. If the Artemis kept a frag, the extra weight will slow them down. Maybe with luck, we can—”
“Captain,” Orynko said suddenly. “We’ve got company.”
“Put it on the screen.”
Hands flying over the console. Nothing happened. The navigator slapped the console once, twice. A two-dimensional star map gradually crackled into life on a transparent panel between the navigation and helm. The simple Cartesian plane indicated their position in the middle.
“Lack of 3D imaging makes this a little difficult to read,” Orynko said.
“Noted,” Gennaji snapped. “If we could get those frags, maybe we could do something about it.”
Karel shifted his weight in his chair, but said nothing. Orynko bit her lip.
“Well?” Gennaji said. “Where are they?”
The crew was silent. Suddenly on the star map two diamonds appeared, running nearly parallel to each other. Probably coming from a refuel at Zedra, he figured.
“Can you plot their intercept?” he asked.
“Tak,” Karel affirmed. “Just a moment.”
His fingers danced over the console. The star map flickered again. Karel looked back and forth from the map to his console. “Come on…there.”
Solid black lines appeared behind the diamonds to show incoming trajectories. Dotted lines indicated the estimated paths.
Of course, they would guess our path, Gennaji mused. We need to refuel at Zedra. So they were waiting for us?
“Who is it?” he asked Orynko. “Can you identify?”
“Based on mass and flight path…” She paused, checking her console. “One is definitely the Corvus. The other is probably Pegasus, but could be the Pleiades.”
The Corvus, they could handle, he knew. Untested young crew. Pleiades?
Gennaji folded his hands. He hoped not. He’d rather face the Pegasus, whose captain he didn’t know very well, rather than the Sisters. The last thing he wanted to do was confront yet another former fellow Sagittarius mate.
“Both will be here in about two and half hours.”
“Good.” Gennaji swiped the console again. “Andy, get ready for some company. Charge up the railgun and get a ballbuster ready.”
“Aye,” came the answer. “Railgun’s a matter of time, but I’ll need some help with the nuke.”
“Right.” Gennaji turned to nav and helm. “We can’t outrun them, but we can outmanuever them. Those newer ships were built to carry rocks over the long haul. We can best them on strength and agility.”
“Captain,” Karel said slowly. “We may not have enough energy for more than two or three short bursts.”
Gennaji nodded. “I know. That’s why we need to enter orbit. That way we can use our thrusters instead of the ion engine.”
Karel and Orynko exchanged glances. Gennaji’s face hardened. Were they going to disobey his order? Bardish would never have stood for it.
As he was about to snap a command, Orynko spoke. “Captain, we know what the Corvus can do. But if the second ship is Pleiades…”
He stopped himself. Frowning, he knew he had to make a choice.
Sorry, Ildico, he thought. If it comes down to it, I have to survive. Even if it means I risk antagonizing the Council.
His features softened at the thought of the geist. How she had changed since the incident. He sighed and closed his eyes.
With eyes closed, he said, “Ory. Get us close to Saturn’s gravity well.”
He heard a soft voice respond. “Aye, sir.”
Gennaji opened his eyes again and locked them onto Karel’s. He would protect this crew. Unlike someone else in the past.
“Let’s get some nukes ready,” he said bluntly. “And helmets ready. Just in case.”
The helmsman nodded curtly, and he unstrapped his flight harness. Gennaji’s eyes met Orynko. She bit her lip, then turned back to her nav console. Hamno, he thought. Maybe he should have just let her sleep in that one time. Last thing they needed was an emotional crew member.
He motioned to Karel, and they made their way to the hatch. As they exited the command center, Gennaji could already feel the Sagittarius turn. The navigator had done as he asked.
In the corridor, Gennaji felt his weight increase and stretched a hand out to steady himself. The acceleration had increased the g-force slightly. They had better prepare the ballbuster before they reached high orbit. The weapon parts were heavy enough as it is, even for two people in fairly decent shape.
He massaged his shoulder again. Back in the day, he wouldn’t have had a problem with heavy weapons. Of course, Sergey hadn’t bothered with ship weapons. The old man always said they took up too much valuable space, that it was better to board and battle hand to hand. Most of the older hunter captains agreed.
The newer hunters didn’t.
After taking command of the Sagittarius, the first thing Gennaji had done was to remodel the cargo hold to accommodate defenses. It cost a pretty bitcoin but saved their asses once or twice.
If she had done that, Gennaji thought, Lena might still be alive. His face hardened as they reached the entrance to the cargo hold.
Andrzej was in the middle of the hold, straining to push the rocket launcher to the access port. Gennaji motioned for Karel to help him, then touched a panel next to the cargo hold door. The panel slid up. So did the next three, revealing a storage compartment with suits and helmets.
He retrieved four of each. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he touched the next closed panel. The weapons locker. He withdrew three pistols. Two cartridges each. Hollow point. Strictly speaking not allowed according to international space mining treaties. He hadn’t permitted his crew to use them when they boarded the Artemis. In his eagerness to confront Riss, he had foolishly thought that including Karel and Andrzej would force her to give up at least part of her claim.
He hadn’t counted on the Loonie and his cybervision.
Gennaji gritted his teeth and pocketed the cartridges. Not this time.
Closing the lockers, he turned his attention to the computer console on the opposite wall. He checked it; the railgun needed another hour and a half to fully charge. Barely in time.
He looked up. Karel and Andrzej were still struggling with the bulky launcher.
Gennaji half-walked, half-bounced across the hold. As he reached them, the Sagittarius shuddered briefly. They all stopped and waited. Gennaji felt his legs strain under the sudden weight. The gravity had increased again.
Orynko’s voice reached them over the ship-wide.
“Captain, we’re in high Saturn orbit. Behind Enceladus.”
“They’re altered course to match.”
“Hold position until I say otherwise.”
Gennaji took out two pistols and handed them to Karel and Andrzej.
“Just in case,” he said. They nodded. Likely, there was no “in case.”
Together the three pushed the launcher platform across the metal floor. Despite the rollers, it was much heavier than he remembered. But it couldn’t be helped. They needed something to disrupt and confuse their opponents’ sensors, even if the damned thing was near impossible to accurately target anything smaller than a space station.
As long as they could get it hooked up in time. Maybe even a neighborhood buckshot would work. The question was whether to hide behind Enceladus and take them on one at a time, or come over the top and try to get both in a radiation shot.
Either way, he favored their chances. Whoever it was out there, they wouldn’t risk damaging his ship. Not if they wanted whatever rocks they thought he had. Which he hadn’t.
They kept pushing.
After twenty long minutes, they managed to slot the platform in place at the access port, which would now serve as a launch port. They remained silent as they continued to work. No need for chitchat. Save some energy and oxygen for the fight.
Karel fiddled with the port connection while Andrzej anchored the platform both physically with chains and magnetically with clamps. The rocket launch would likely alter their position, so Gennaji busied himself with preparing possible railgun targets. The Artemis was a new ship with a thick hull and strong shielding that made the railgun ineffective, but the other hunter ships were vulnerable. The Pleiades, too, if it came down to it.
He hoped he wouldn’t need to go to that extreme.
It had been some time since he fought ship to ship. And that was in the Happy Hunting Grounds, not halfway to the Oort. But Bardish had taught him well. Despite his aversion to big weapons, Bardish had a patient, tactical knowledge that left a strong impression. A smile came unbidden as he thought of the old man.
The first ten years he spent on the Sagittarius were the best of his life. Bardish, already famous as the discoverer of ditrium, hailed as the savior of the Lunar terraforming project. Gennaji, just another flyboy in the Ukrainian Union airforce. Bored by endless training exercises that seemed to serve little purpose other than antagonize their neighbors. Spending most of his free time drinking like a fish and chasing tail.
When the Union military cut their fliers due to budget constraints, he latched onto the first job available: piloting EU supply runs to the ISS. Lucky for him the Sagittarius was docking the first time he made a run, or he might still be wasting his life hauling bean curd and anti-radiation skin replenishing cream.
Spend weeks, even months at a time in the outer solar system searching for dirty rocks? Risk his life for faceless corporations that couldn’t care less if a hunter crew lost a member of two? Endure endless tubes of tasteless powder-based food rations and sleep every night trussed up like a slab of meat in a butcher’s window?
As long as he was helping a fellow Ukrainian, as long as he was getting paid and having the time of his life, he’d had done it forever.
Until Clarissa took the Captain away from him.
He was next in line to inherit the ship. He was sure of that. Who else was qualified? Who else had been in the crew so long, besides Ildico? And she was a geist, at that time.
His lip curled at the thought. A geist, becoming a hunter captain. Of course, he respected her skills as an engineer. And she certainly had the experience of the hunt, often the first to identify which rocks had the best ore.
But in charge? Of him?
Thinking back, he knew even at the time that they should have left well enough alone. The refuge ship explosion. The debris field. Retrieving a radiated escape pod.
To be sure, the metal fetched a fine price, once they had decontaminated most of it. They could have had an even higher profit margin, had Sergey agreed to dump the escape pod and cleared more room for other, more valuable ship parts.
But he wouldn’t hear of it.
“This child needs a home,” Bardish said. “We keep the pod.”
“But Sergey,” Lena protested. “She can always stay in my bunk. There’s room. She’s so small.”
“No!” Sergey barked. “This is where she stays. For now.”
Gennaji’s right eyelid twitched at the memory.
“For now” didn’t last long. Just long enough for Sergey to adopt the girl. The pod metal turned out to be worthless, selling for next to nothing. They could have made much more from engine parts. Hull pieces. Even fuel tanks with holes that could easily be patched.
At first, the crew tolerated the girl. Sergey doted on her. He struggled to speak Russian with her, though. At least until her English was good enough.
Good enough, Gennaji thought, to wheedle her way into the hearts of nearly everyone she came in contact with. Including Lena.
But not him. He knew what she was doing. He knew she had planned everything. No parents, sure. There were loads of kids who lost their folks. He, himself, never learned what happened to most of his family. Even years after the East Asian Wars ended, when the dust cleared and the burnt farms and hollowed out cities began to rebuild.
She would never know his pain.
“Captain, they’re almost in range!”
Orynko’s voice. He snapped his head up and looked over at the rocket launcher. Karel was bent over the console. Andrzej appeared to have just finished clamping the rocket in place.
“Captain, almost ready,” Karel called over to him.
Gennaji glanced down at the railgun settings. The moment of truth.
(When last we left the crew of the Artemis, they had just fracked an asteroid, keeping part for their drinking water and sending the rest to Ceres.)
“…Love you. End transmission.”
Riss extended a hand to touch the computer panel, then leaned back in her sleeping cabin chair. Another vid message finished. The ping would probably take several days to reach Weng on Luna. She sighed. She hoped she hadn’t looked as tired as she felt.
Flying over to the Centaur had made her more anxious than she cared to admit to the Artemis crew. Her first capture of a potentially extra-solar object, one that might have originated from the Kuiper Belt. The whole way over she kept thinking of Sergey and the ditrium rock he caught. The one that made the Moon terraforming possible. The one that made him famous.
She desperately wanted the rock to be different. Needed it to be different.
She looked to her right. Barren, boring desktop space. Compared to her crew’s quarters, hers was spartan. Where they had objects that reminded them of home — photos of family, books given by relatives and friends, even freeze-dried flowers — she had practically nothing.
No family. Save Sergey. But he disliked photos, especially of himself.
So instead of a photo, she had a doll, a motanka. Given to her on her sixth birthday, to protect her. Sergey promised to find her parents. Or at least find out what happened to her parents. She couldn’t remember if she’d had dolls when her parents were still…when she was living Earthside.
At any rate, they never found out what had happened. She barely had memories of them, let alone whatever dolls they may have given her.
She stretched out a hand and picked up the doll. Slender blond tresses, tied at the end with red ribbons. A black dress and white shirt decorated with bands of bright orange and light blue. Crown of yellow flowers.
A cross for a face.
Somehow, she couldn’t picture a German father giving her the same doll. Her Russian mother might have given her a…what was it called? A babushka. No, a matryoshka. Wooden nesting dolls. Different colors, too. Probably.
What kind of people were they, she wondered. She remembered waking up in the lifepod, in the Sagittarius’s cargo hold. Frightened by the large bearded man with the sad eyes who looked like her father but didn’t sound like him.
The woman next to him who looked nothing like her mother but would later treat her like one.
Riss sighed and put the doll back, gently, on the desk. She kicked off her magboots, lay back on her bed.
The desk chimed.
“Für Elise. Medium volume, slower tempo version. In the style of Rachmaninoff.”
The well-known melody did not really soothe her. But it did remind her of Sergey. And she never could decide between German and Russian composers.
Her body began to float above her bunk. It was dangerous to sleep without being strapped in, but it felt relaxing, for the moment. She lay on her back, in the air, looking at her hands. Stretching them in front of her, slowly. Henna-brown hair drifted. Ought to get a cut, she thought absently. The music swelled, repeated the main refrain.
“Artemis. Stop. Play Holst. The Planets, regular volume.”
“Start with the second, then skip to the sixth.”
No Mars or Jupiter, she thought. Even though most of her life, she’d been in the happy hunting grounds. A lifestyle inherited from her foster father Sergey. Chasing rocks around the inner solar system, an independent operator living on the fringes of civilized space. Part of the fun of the job was that each rock was different, but really they were all the same. All variations on a theme.
Like the doll, she thought, with a smirk. Maybe.
She thought back to her last conversation with Weng, before the Artemis left for Transneptune.
“The Luna Council doesn’t want original and beautiful works of architecture,” Weng told her, as they walked along the Lunar Sea, arm in arm. “They want inhabitable cities. Ugly, soulless blocks of metal and concrete, as fast as they can be 3D printed.”
She hadn’t responded. Just stared into the cold night sky. Why argue when the stars were so beautiful?
Maybe the Council was wrong, she thought now. Maybe simply living and working wasn’t enough. Even for adventurous types like Sergey.
No, Riss decided. Maybe she was wrong. too. Maybe she wasn’t an adventurous space captain, after all. Maybe she was just a scavenger, catching ice and throwing it at Ceres, like all the other scavengers with their junky ships.
“The magician” began. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to float higher. Spread her arms out. Tilting back and forth ever so slightly. The hum of the engines below the crew bunk area reverberated.
She was so sure that this rock would be different. No doubt that had added to her getting seriously annoyed at Gennaji. At least twenty-five Earth years older than her, but he acted like sixty. And getting worse with age.
But she felt time slipping away, as well. She had wanted some time on the rock. Alone. To really get to know this one, see if it had something to tell her. To see if she had chosen the right kind of life.
Just another ice rock. Nothing different. No ditrium, no special metals. More ice.
At least the landing and recovery operations went smoothly. At least she got some sense of satisfaction out of a job well done. With a competent crew.
Well, competent, if a little dysfunctional. Sanvi’s skill as a pilot was still developing, but her martial arts talents were always beneficial. The incident in the hold a recent example. The woman occasionally bothered her, challenging her decisions. Questioning her past.
Lena. Sanvi was too much like Lena. Different ethnicity, same personality.
Was that it?
Poor Lena, I’m sorry. I…
Riss opened her eyes. She was looking down at her bunk, her back pressed against the ceiling of her quarters. Reaching back with a hand, she gave a little nudge and began to float downward.
Coming out to Transneptune always bore some risks. She supposed she should be happy they had scored anything at all. A pretty amazing catch, all things considered.
Millions of miles from civilization with an ordinary ice rock in the hold to keep them company. She sighed.
“Artemis, stop music.”
Back on the bunk, face down, she stretched out a hand and retrieved her boots. While the crew was in rest and relaxation mode, she might as well check their reserves. It’d be a while before they reached Zedra.