Chapter 15

“What is the difference between spaghetti and linguine?” asks Sophia.
I’m standing by the big rover with my thumbs hooked in to my utility belt. The mountain of machine towers above me but right now it’s just a big piece of worthless junk. So far the fix has been a lot of effort without much joy. And it’s been hard work—I’m panting enough that my visor is fogging bad and sweat is dripping off my nose onto the indicator board of my helmet. I pause to let the ventilator system catch up. “You don’t know that already?” I ask, breathlessly. “Anyways I think it’s the shape of the noodle—in cross section, I mean. Spaghetti is roundish but linguine is kinda oval or elliptical.”
“But aren’t they both made of the same thing?”
“Yea, they’re both types of pasta. Wheat and chicken eggs, I believe.”
I poke my head through the access hole to the transmission chamber, shining my helmet lights down into the abyss. There’s a big chunk of magnetite wedged between two massive gears. Each gear is nearly as big as my whole body. I work the crowbar down in there, jamming it between one of the metallic facets of the rock and a hardened-steel tooth of a cog. I crank down on the bar.
The effort makes my boots lose their grip; my legs fly up over my head but I’m able to lever myself back down by gripping the edge of the access cover. I look around. Hope nobody saw that. Don’t want to use the emergency jets if I can avoid it; I’ve already used a couple of charges this shift and I don’t want to look like a klutz if anybody is watching. Plus I only got a couple charges left.
“But what’s the point,” she asks. “Wouldn’t spaghetti and linguine taste the same?”
It’s like the woman has never been to a restaurant. “Yea, yea pretty much the same I reckon. I think it’s just tradition to use spaghetti with meat and linguini with seafood. It’s the way the different shapes hold the sauce. Something like that.”
“I don’t understand why there are so many kinds of pasta. There are dozens. Ci sono molti.”
A salty ball of sweat rolls into my right eye. It stings. I rub my eye with the little ball of terrycloth I leave taped inside my helmet. Then I wedge my foot under one of the thick metal sides of the rover to hold myself down, grit my teeth, and heave with the crowbar. I grunt from the effort.
“What did you say?” she asks. “Are you all right?”
The tough rock splits from the force. A small nugget falls off from the main piece, dropping lazily to the ground. The main piece is smaller now so I reach in with the crowbar and carefully push it off the gear. Now that’s more like it. “I’m OK,” I say, catching my breath, “just had to pull hard, that’s all.” I check my gas levels; I’ve got enough O2 for now, and CO2 is good enough. I’m almost at the end of my shift anyways.
I take a few steps back and punch the reset button on the rover with the crowbar. The machine’s cameras turn and glare at me indignantly. The big yellow digger comes to life, dirty and scary and feisty as ever. I step back quickly as its massive shovel resumes digging and dumping. It would make a racket if there was any air. As it is I can still feel it working from the ground shaking. I watch the machine in fascination. The work here is hard and with all the work shifts and short sleep shifts I’m tired all the time but I have to admit that watching the big boys work gives me a sense of satisfaction.
“And then there’s pizza,” she continues. “There are so many kinds of pizza! Why are there so many? Does it make you happy to have so many choices?”
I turn towards the duty shack; I can barely see it for the haze of dust. We’ve been living in a pea-soup of dust-fog since mining ops started. I can’t get used to it. It’s weird and disorienting. I would say it’s other-worldly but…yea. Guess that’s kinda an old-fashioned expression. From back when folks only knew one world.
I walk slowly across the cracked ground. One boot after another; a slow ramble back through the haze to the shed, with my boots singing a monotonous, one-note melody in stereo the entire way. The crazy part is, whenever I go back inside the CM, I feel weird taking a step because I don’t hear a tone. Force of habit. “Yea,” I say. “I think it just adds variety to life. That’s what freedom of choice is all about. Kinda like ball sports: there’s basketball and baseball and soccer and golf, all basically with the point of getting a ball or puck into some kind of hole.”
We’ve been mining Hrothgar for almost two weeks now. The machines have taken tons and tons of material from the stroid. Every box of ore that flies back up to the ship’s cargo section is coin in my pocket. And the face of the stroid is changing: where there was a big flat space, now there’s a spiral of deep trenches in the areas that have been mined, the ground higher in the areas yet to be touched. The area behind the beneficiation output belt is a mountain of waste material.
“That is interesting, hmmm figo, this desire to put a ball in a hole. Could it be based on feeding? Or mating?”
Mating? Why does she ask these bizarre questions? “I don’t think it has to do with sex,” I reply, “maybe food though, indirectly, like hunting. Instincts from cave man days, chasing little animals around to eat.”
“Oh,” she says. “Cave man? Aren’t you a cave man?”
She’s got me there. “Paleolithic man. You know what I mean.” Always with the little jokes. My sense of time is completely whacked; 3 hours on, 6 hours off for sleep, 3 hours on watch, then put the evasuit back on and sit outside for another 3 hours. Ain’t no night, no day; daylight comes through the haze and goes away in cycles that last less than an hour.
The stars above—them that we can see—are constantly circling above us. I was kinda queasy for a while but Katya had some meds that helped. Problem is, they also leave me a little high and I don’t much like that. But it’s better than spewing in your helmet. Anything is better than that. Now I’m just tired all the time. But we’re almost done; our holds are nearly full. This is my last shift, finally. A few more hours and the big prop drone will swoop down and collect all our toys for the return trip. I cannot wait. I’m gonna sleep all the way home.
I finally make it back to the shed, with Sophia babbling the whole way. I’ve come to enjoy our conversations but her questions baffle me. She’s got a daffy perspective, so naive in many ways, and so many strange gaps in her knowledge. And then she’ll say something brilliant. I wonder if she’s been kept prisoner on her ship, kept away from people. But she won’t answer any questions about that and if she’s a prisoner, her captors sure ain’t keeping her quiet. I hook into the shed’s big O2 tanks to recharge my suit’s supply. My wristy says I still have a half hour to go in the shift which makes this the longest 3 hours I’ve ever spent; even more than my previous 3 hour shift which up until now had been my personal record.
Sophia is being quiet for the moment. It’s kinda peaceful. My mouth opens into a massive yawn and my eyelids get heavy. Can’t help it. I watch the rovers on my display; the one I just fixed has a hopper full of raw ore already and is starting its meandering way back to the beneficiation unit, where the oar is processed to discard the worthless stuff. Another rover is outbound after dumping its load, the third one is digging away. Nothing to do but doze until something goes wrong. I lean back in my seat. I think I maybe start to snore. Then Sophia pipes up, jolting me out of my torpor.
“Straker?” she says.
I open one eye. “Ah…uh, yes Sophia.”
“Straker, Are you ready for your friends?”
It takes me a second or two to figure that question, then both of my eyes snap open. “What? Friends? What friends?”
“The Malapert ship is almost here. The one you’ve been transmitting to.”
* * * * *
I run through decontamination as fast as I can: the solvent shower, the air shower, the electrostatic curtain. I doff my helmet and suit, jam my backpack onto its recharging station, and head for the flight deck. Katya is sitting at her console, looking as bored as I was a few minutes ago. “Did you hear that?” I ask.
“Hear what?” she replies, dubiously inspecting me for dust.
“On my suit radio,” I say.
“No. Radio has been quiet. Just normal traffic, why?” she asks, tilting her head. “You’re early off your shift, aren’t you?”
“Uh…never mind. Has radar picked up any approaching vehicle?”
She perks up. “Heck no. Straker, what is going on? Why are you so excited?”
I kneel down to eye level with her as I figure out a lie to use. “I thought I saw a glint in the sky. Maybe just my imagination. Can you please check?”
With a doubtful shake of her head, she turns to one of her displays and flicks it over to the anti-collision radar screen. Even I can see that there ain’t no ship, just empty space. But there is a finger-smudge on the display at the edge of the radar’s range. I pick up the rag beside the display and wipe at the smudge. It ain’t a smudge. “What’s that?” I ask, pointing to the spot.
“Just a few rocks flying by.”
“Will you check?”
Her head rocks back and she looks at me. “Really? This is not a ship. Whatever it is, it’s tiny. And it won’t hit us or the cargo section.”
I shrug, trying to seem unconcerned. My best fake little chuckle. “OK, you’re the expert. I’m still learning how the system works. Just out of curiosity, if it were a ship, what you would do next?”
The way to get an engineer going is to ask how things work. Katya switches from skeptical mode to instructor mode. “If the radar caught something big and solid, I would click the image, like this,” she touches the spot on the screen, “make a selection from the pull-down menu to get the coordinates, then switch over to telescope. The telescope is up on the ship’s cargo section, keeping station out there beyond the haze, so the optical would find whatever it is, no problem.”
With a flick of her slender finger, the screen changes from radar to a long-range camera image. All it shows is a field of stars. With a click, Katya tells the telescope where to look. The stars on the display move smoothly left and downward as a gimbal rotates the optics. Nothing but sterile white stars and the palette-brush swipe of distant galaxies. I’m starting to feel like I stuck my neck out a bit too far. But the telescope is still moving.
Then…there in the left corner…now dead center…a bright glint of reflected light. Katya sees it and filters the image. She zooms in. The telescope is at long range, so the image is grainy and jittery, but we both know what it is immediately. It’s a ship. Not a cargo job neither; smaller and more muscular, with big engines and ominous protrusions that could be anything. Katya gasps. “Holy…Holy crap!” After a millisecond’s pause, she taps her headset with a trembling finger, her eyes round as coins. “Captain to the flight deck, stat! A ship is approaching on intercept, repeat an unidentified ship is approaching.”
“Copy, on my way,” replies the captain.
Katya turns to me, her face flushed and her eyebrows knitted in concern. “How did you know?”
I shrug. “All I saw was a glint. Couldn’t have been this ship, it’s way too far out. Just a coincidence. But a lucky coincidence, right?” That’s on the outside. On the inside my stomach is jumping around like one of them toothy ROUS rabbits back at Shacktown.
* * * * *
The captain has taken the saddle next to Katya’s, and together they’re going through the screens. The console is alight with columns of numbers about this new target; its estimated mass, velocity, capabilities. Another screen is flipping through known cislunar, martian, and asteroid spacecraft, trying to find a match, and not finding one. The telescope view shows a white plume jetting out of the ship. The spacecraft has now turned and is decelerating rapidly—we’re looking at the ass-end of the engines and their slender plasma clouds. Katya shows the captain the image of the ship we captured earlier and together they are walking through the data gleaned from the computer. “I’ve never seen a ship like this,” says Katya to the captain, a tremor in her voice.
Louis is standing next to me, behind the Katya’s station, looking on. His expression is brooding and impassive but intensely interested. Don’t know why the captain summoned him but he looks under control.
“Well, I’ve never actually seen a ship like that either,” sighs the captain as she leans forward, her slender but muscular forearms resting on the console, her tattoos peeking out from under unzipped sleeves. “Not one that’s actually been built anyway. But I knew it was being developed. Damn.”
“It showed up like a cloud of rocks on radar,” says Katya. “I didn’t pay any attention to it until Straker said something. I don’t get it.”
The captain strokes her chin. “Stealth gear. Not hard to do, just illegal.”
“’Legal’ is a relative term these days,” remarks Louis.
“Is it armed?” asks Katya. “What is this?” She points to a protrusion from the ship’s hull.
“Yup, it’s armed all right,” says Louis. “That’s a blister for a laser. A big one—combat job.”
“Oh my God,” says Katya, looking back at Louis, her hand to her mouth, eyes wide with fright.
The captain stands up and grabs Louis by the arm. She pulls him back a few feet, where the two of them converse in hushed tones. Louis is stooping to whisper into the captain’s ear but I’m closer to them than Katya and if I hold my breath, I can just make out what they’re saying.
“Big radiators on the side,” whispers Louis, “I recognize the config. Pretty sure it’s the Siemens, diode-pumped fiber, 600 nanometers wavelength. Power in the 500 kilowatt to one megawatt range, depending on options. It’s a killer. Beam director looks like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries type 502—I’ve seen the literature—quick slew and real accurate. We wouldn’t be safe from this thing at anything less than 25,000 klicks.”
“Hmmm. The Alliance has definitely upped their game. Can we evade?” asks the captain.
“Yea, maybe, depending on range, but only for a while…we’d run out of maneuvering hypergolics long before they’d run out of electricity. We’d be sitting ducks.”
They say other stuff that I can’t hear. Louis sure seems to know a lot about military lasers all of a sudden. I’m still pondering that when the captain walks around and faces Katya and me, her eyes fixed steady, serious as a heart attack. “Listen to me,” she says. “I don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but we all need to keep it frosty. Stay cool and we’ll be fine.”
“Aye, Captain,” replies Katya. I see the side of Katya’s face as she blinks once, takes a breath, and waits for the captain’s word. As for me, I nod. Just another day in paradise.
“Good,” says the captain. “Here’s what we’re going to do. This ship has big engines. It accelerates fast and decelerates fast. And they have a laser. But we have at least an hour.” Katya and Louis and I all nod. “Bring down the drones. Get the power unit back up to the ship. Once that is done, mate the prop drone to the CM and make ready to blow moorings. We may need to make a quick exit, in which case we’ll have to abandon some gear.”
“Drones down, mate to CM, make ready to blow moorings, aye.”
“Execute now,” says the captain. Katya turns to her console, calmer now that she has instructions. Her practiced fingers blur as she issues rapid-fire commands to the drones. The captain faces Louis. “Follow me,” she says. The two of them head for the captain’s ready room, but just before she heads down the ladder, the captain calls back to Katya. “And Katya, alert Officer Nastez. Wake him up and have him get ready to accompany me if there is to be a parley with this other ship.”
“Wake the first officer. Aye aye Captain,” replies Katya.
And just like that, the captain and Louis are gone and Katya is talking to Nastez on her headset. I’m left lingering, feeling about as useful as a bowling ball with no holes. What’s gonna happen next? Is the new ship really from Malapert, like Sophia said? And why did the captain take Louis with her? How come he’s so smart about this stuff? Nobody has said nothing about this ship being from the government, but I think the captain suspects that. All the equipment Louis talked about comes from Alliance countries, and ProvGov is cozy with them, so I’m told. And if the captain has known about the development of this armed ship, then she has intelligence of her own. It follows that she knows what is going on and who is doing it. The main thing I’m worrying about is, does the captain know about me?
* * * * *
The new ship lands on jets of flame that kick up even more clouds of dust and sets them to glowing. It’s a bad-ass looking ship, bulging with engines and antennae and that big powerful laser bulge back towards the stern. The only sound of its airless landing is the low rumble of the ground shaking beneath us and the impacts of gravel and dust kicked up by the other ship’s engines. The rocks make a sharp pinging sound as they slam against the steel sides of the CM. Both the captain and Nastez stand behind Katya’s console now, watching the landing and talking in low voices among themselves. I’m still in my evasuit; with everything going on I ain’t had time to take it off. Louis is off to my right with his hands on his hips. His face is a mask of concentration. “What do you reckon they’re doing?” I ask Louis.
“They’re here to steal our stuff,” he answers. “They’ll aim to convince us to give it up without a tussle but when push comes to shove I’d wager they’ll pull out their guns.”
Guns? Jeez, I hope he’s wrong. I always thought, worst case, that they would just pull up their own mining ship next to ours and dig away, sharing in the bounty. It would hurt the Allgood’s market share when selling the ore, might dip the price a bit, but it’s fair commerce and no real harm done. Why does it have to be about guns?
“Call them,” says the captain.
Katya keys her headset. “Unidentified ship, this is L.S. Allgood hailing. Repeat unidentified ship, this is L.S. Allgood hailing; do you read, over.”
There’s a moment of silence, then a deep male voice comes over the set. “Allgood, this is A.S. Kestrel responding. Read you fine. We mean you no harm. Stand by for streaming video, over.” Katya taps a button on her display and a blank screen shows up, then an elderly man’s face appears. He is well dressed in civilian clothing, with a thin moustache and perfectly coiffed salt and pepper hair. His face is surgically smooth but his voice quivers with advanced age behind his affected smile.
“Greetings Freya and all of the Allgood crew,” he says, with a noticeable Slavic accent. “I trust your journey has been pleasant. I have been watching your ship for some time, following her many missions with interest and admiration.”
Nastez faces the captain. “Does he know you? Who is this person?” he asks.
“That’s Jacob Anastasia,” replies Louis. “The guy everyone calls ‘Nifty Jim’. Big boss of the Malapert Administration. Head gangster over there.”
“The Russian,” mumbles Katya, disgust in her voice.
“I wish I could be there in person but unfortunately, duties have kept me here on Luna,” says the man. “Congratulations on your impressive digging. I join with my colleagues in the Malapert City administration, as well as the officials in the Provisional Government of Southern Hemisphere in expressing my admiration…”
Nastez blanches. “Oh. So that’s Nifty Jim. He doesn’t look like a murderer.”
“Quiet,” says the captain.
“…that your ore belongs to us, to put in bluntly,” continues the man, smiling impassively. “We registered ownership of asteroid 65997 Honshu over 4 months ago. The registry is recorded with AFP Directorate of Science Justice and has been in public view since that time.”
“Baloney,” exclaims Nastez, “there’s no way they knew about Hrothgar that long ago.”
“I need to hear this,” reminds the captain, firmer this time.
“…reasonable reimbursement for your trouble. We’ll be taking control of the Allgood and will guide it back to the L-1 Lagrangian point, where ore will be offloaded by a Malapert crew. My apologies for confusion. Goodbye and safe travels.” The screen goes black as the video ends.
“What a crock!” says Nastez, his face turning crimson and his eyes in mad circles, “These cretinous thugs are not going to get away with this! This is patently illegal!
“Wait,” says the captain, “there will be more…”
The deep voice comes back over the speaker. “Allgood, this is Kestrel, you will stand down and prepare to be boarded as you are on private property, over.”
The captain keys her headset. “Kestrel, this is Allgood actual. We will allow a small party on board as our guests and at our discretion. I require a meeting with your captain immediately. Over.”
A pause, then “That’s a neg, Allgood. We will board your ship and you will stand down. You will cease mining operations immediately. You are on private property; repeat you are on private property, over.”
The captain considers her next move for a few seconds, then presses transmit on her headset again. “Kestrel, Allgood actual. All right then, let’s cut to the chase. Listen, punk. I can release every ore hold from our stationed cargo section and propel them randomly into space. You do as I say or you will spend the next several days chasing your illegal booty. I know your ship’s design; you do not have the fuel or the time for that. Acknowledge, over.”
Silence. Then the captain keys her headset again. “Kestrel. Tell your Nifty Jim and his band of thieves that Freya Jemison told you. He knows I’ll do what I say. Over.” She sits back in her saddle with a frown. “It’ll take them a few minutes to get back. They won’t do anything without Nifty Jim’s word.”
“I simply cannot believe that this is happening,” declares Nastez.
The captain nods. “Believe it,” she says, her eyes fixed on the display, “these people play hardball.”
“But those…those criminals have a laser! What in the world could we ever do except give in? They can kill us! They can kill us all and leave our bodies on this godforsaken rock forever!”
The captain ponders a moment, a veiled but thoughtful expression on her wrinkled face, then sneaks a look sideways at Louis. “We are not entirely without options,” she says.