Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Machinists' Gospel (a partial chapter)

Jora trudged through the mud toward the light of a domed city.  The rain was coming down in sheets, but this was not such a concern for her.  She was a Journeywoman Machinist, soon to ascend to her Mastery.  If she could not manipulate the physical world in such a way as to keep the rain off her, she needed to go back with the apprentices.  One booted foot became stuck in the mud, and she scowled.  She briefly considered just stopping the rain altogether and drying up the road, but she contented herself with drying only that mud that held her boot.  Any machinist past the first year of their apprenticeship knew how to alter simple weather patterns.  It took the wisdom of the higher ranks to know they shouldn’t.

The universe was a complex machine, or so the Machinists believed.  Each aspect of the universe -time, space, etc- was simply a cog in the machine.  God, that vast omniscient and unknowable intelligence, was the universe’s operating system and information was its fuel.  More appropriately, the exchange of information, and the complexity of that exchange, provided the universal machine with its fuel.  This exchange could take the form of communication between sentient beings, instinctive autonomous warnings between animals, or even the passing of genetic information between one cell and another.  From the very beginning of their training, Machinists learned to take the machine apart, to understand how all its moving parts worked, and to manipulate those parts by adding, however small, their own code to the God OS, and introducing new information to the fuel mixture.  

As a Machinist learned to manipulate each aspect of the universe, a symbolic cog would be tattooed on their arm.  Once an apprentice showed their understanding of God itself, and could grasp the underlying source code of the universe, a final tattoo was added - the symbol for God they saw at their moment of revelation.  Jora’s God symbol was the triple-moon and pentacle of the goddess-worshippers.  It had been her faith as a young girl, and many Machinists used their primary faiths to decrypt the God Code.  Of course, all Machinists knew their old myths and dogmas were just that - stories and rules to enable the common folk to touch the smallest measure of Universal Truth.  So, while she may have the Goddess’ symbol tattooed on her arm, Jora did not actually believe that God was a woman who lived on the moon, blessing the crops and the wombs of young women.  One of her fellow Journeymen, a man named Carthas, had the crossed spikes of the Tortured Messiah as his symbol, though he did not believe that God was a magical shepherd who died under torture to redeem the sins of humankind.  They were just stories and symbols.  The real truth was found in the Code.

The road changed from mud to a metallic alloy made slick by the rain.  She walked the rest of the way to the towering double doors built into the base of the massive dome.  The dome indicated one of the scattered cities of the Robotmen, that strange race of silicon people from beyond the stars that had attempted to conquer their world many years ago.  The Machinists were instrumental in resisting the invasion, as well as the tense negotiations that established a still-fragile peace between humanity and the remaining robotic colonists.  This, combined with a similarity in their belief systems, created a strong rapport between the Machinists and the Robotmen that lasted to this day.

Jora paused before pressing the button that would alert those within the dome of her presence.  The cities of the Robotmen were all domed, due to the fact that the atmosphere preferred by the Robotmen was toxic to humans, and vice-versa.  Robotmen donned protective armor when leaving their cities, while humans simply stayed out of the domes.  The Machinists were the only humans capable of surviving within the domed cities of the Robotmen, but not without certain modifications.  Jora concentrated, and felt a thin silicate film cover her from head to toe, under her clothes, over her eyes, and inside her ears, nose and throat.  The film would enable her to endure their environment without suffocating or having her skin and tissues dissolve.  She gagged slightly as the film made its way down into her stomach and lungs.  It would process the poisons of the Robotmen’s atmosphere into breathable air, and would break down any particulates she might swallow by accident.  She would not be able to eat until she left the dome and removed her protective film, but she did not anticipate a lengthy visit.  She would have preferred not to be here at all, but it had been many years since the Robotmen had granted an audience to any humans, and far longer still since they had sought one out.  Jora was convinced they’d sent her as a final test for her Mastery, so she was determined to make a good showing of herself.  Taking a deep breath, which hurt slightly through the film, she pressed the button.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Chapter One (of a potential novel)

The late 24th century was a time of much upheaval and uncertainty for the Solar Republic.  For the first time in over a hundred years, the core system was at the mercy of invasion and piracy, the planet Earth herself being occupied for more than a year by the Sliurne Imperium.  With its territory reaching far and wide across the galaxy, even into parallel dimensions, the Republic was stretched far too thin for even the mighty Galactic Fleet to hold.  Revolution was common, with at least one outer colony being seized by its governor and forced into secession.  It is during this time of looming chaos and potential collapse, that the Magi began to take a larger role in the affairs of state, a role that would eventually lead to the Magi Regency.

The hovercab came to a stop before the airlock of the Thoris estate, a sprawling mansion of chrome and plastic on the moon's light side.  From her seat in back, Arden pinged her access code to the estate's security AI.  A voice made of music spoke through her wristcom.

"Ms. Thoris," it said. "Welcome home."

"Just visiting, X9," she replied.  "Though it's nice to hear your voice."

The voice on the other end hesitated before speaking.  "It was... appropriately familiar to receive transmission of your code earlier."

Arden laughed.  "Thank you, X9."

The airlock opened and the cab entered.  After a few moments, Arden heard the hiss of the door's vacuum-lock opening.  A robot designed to resemble a smartly-dressed man hurried down the steps to open the door.  Arden smiled at him as she stepped out.  "Hello, Mr. Servo," she said.

"Ms. Thoris," he bowed.  He directed some members of the staff toward the trunk for her bags, and another to the driver to pay Arden's fare.

"I can pay my own cab fare, Mr. Servo."  She hefted a large pack out of the back seat and flung it over her shoulder.  "And I've just the one bag."

"Of course, Ms. Thoris," he answered, waving the staff away from the trunk.  The cab drove off and the two walked through a secondary airlock toward the house.  "But as Lady Thoris has been most put out all day due to her only daughter, if I may, 'slumming it across the galaxy on public transit only to lower herself into a hovercab', it is perhaps best you allow his Lordship the honor of paying your fare."

Arden bent knee in the formal curtsy of the upper class.  "I bow to your superior wisdom on the subject, sir."

Mr. Servo held open the door, a crackle of static conveying, in Arden's mind, irritation.  "You have changed little, Ms. Thoris."

Arden kissed the old butler robot's cheek as they went their separate ways.  "Likewise, Mr. Servo, thank all the gods of space."

She was still smiling as she entered her former bedroom, which was much as she'd left it years ago.  She tossed her pack on a sofa near the window and sat on her bed. 

"Arden?"  A voice at the door made her look up.

"Hello, Mother."

"Arden, dearest, why wouldn't you let your father send his yacht?"  Lady Thoris emoted her way across the room.  "Honestly, to reduce yourself to public transit..."  She was a tall woman, and slender, traits she passed on to her daughter.  A mid-life obsession with maintaining that figure had left her gaunt and hunched, as though she lacked the muscle needed to hold her frame upright.  Her fine features and impeccable wardrobe still rendered her a beauty in many people's eyes.  The eyes of her daughter saw only the mother she knew grown old.

"Mother," Arden sighed, "I booked first-class passage on a luxury starliner.  That hardly qualifies as public transit."

Lady Thoris waved her hand dismissively.  "It is still public, dear."

"Of course, Mother."

Arden's mother noticed the full pack on the sofa.  "I'll send Yslene to unpack your things as soon as--"

"Don't," Arden shook her head.  "I won't be here long enough for unpacking."

A wave of irritation passed across Lady Thoris' face before finally settling into mild disappointment.  "Oh, darling, why not?  You've only just arrived."

"Can't be helped," Arden said.  "I'm expected on Marros within a few days.  I was only able to stop because my course passed by so close and it's been so long since I was home last."

Her mother clicked in disapproval.  "Ah," she said.  "Magi business."

Arden sighed.  "Yes, Mother.  What other business would I be in?"

"Any number of them, if I'd had my way," came her mother's retort.  "Honestly, a woman of your breeding gallivanting about the cosmos with all manner of common riff-raff--"

"That's enough, Deering," Lord Thoris scolded as he walked through the door.  "Any father would be proud to have a full Magi in the family."  He beamed at his daughter.  "There's my little Magi princess."

Arden fought the urge to roll her eyes.  Ever since I passed novice training, she thought.  "Father," she said, sounding more irritated than she felt.

"What?"  He held his arms wide, protesting his innocence.  "You used to love it when I called you that!"

"When I was six!  I'm nearly thir--"

"Twenty-nine, dear," her mother said primly.  "Women of our society may turn twenty-nine as often as we like."

Arden and her father both stifled a sigh, then glanced at each other and laughed.  Arden gave her father a hug and a smile.  "Hello, Father."

"Hello, sweetheart."

Later, as the family sat out on the domed terrace watching night chase day across the Earth, the subject of Arden's future came up.

"So, how goes the Ronin's Road?" her father asked.

"Well enough," she answered.  "I've been spending the last few years roaming the frontier worlds.  Raiders are a huge problem out there, where some oaf with a ship and a crew dumber than he is can land on a sparsely populated colony world, steal a whole lot of what people can't spare and be gone before anyone can call the Patrol."  She grinned.  "Of course, there's a lot less of that since word got around there's a Magi wandering the outer planets."

"I wish there were Magi here," he grumbled.  "Marauders don't always stick to the outer planets, and the Patrol isn't always quicker in the core."  He switched to a grin, saying, "So, no chance of calling you Paladin any time soon?"

Arden grinned at her father.  "Why? are you offering me the Ellisport living?"

Her father met her eyes and asked, "Would you take it if I did?"

She thought a moment.  "I might," she said, "but not for a while.  I've walking yet to do on my Road, before I can take my Orders."

Lady Deering Thoris busied herself ordering refreshment via her loungecomm as she offered her comment.  "Well, I suppose Paladin is a perfectly respectable profession, if one acquires a living of some merit.  But really, couldn't you have used your influence, dear, to let her skip this dreadful Ronin business?"  She turned a plaintive eye to her husband.

"Some things in this universe cannot be 'influenced', my dear."  Lord Thoris rose from his chair and walked back toward the house.

The two women were silent a moment, then Arden spoke.

"Thank you, Mother."

Lady Thoris scowled.  "Well, pardon me for--"

Arden held up her hand.  "No, no.  I'm sorry.  That wasn't sarcasm.  I was genuinely thanking you."

Her mother calmed, then looked at Arden, confused.

Arden smiled.  "I recognize worry when I sense it, Mother.  I am Magi."

Lady Thoris smiled, her eyes wet.  "I never meant to disparage, or-or to make you think..."  She dabbed at her eyes, regaining her composure.  "I've always been proud of you, please don't doubt that."

Arden touched her mother's hand. "Not for a moment."

Lady Thoris nodded.  "It's just...  most Magi..."

"I know, Mother."  Arden patted Lady Thoris' hand.

"...most Magi die... when they..."

"I know," her daughter whispered.

"They die as Ronin," her mother said softly.

Arden nodded.

"I can't promise I won't die," she said finally, "but I can promise when I leave this Road for the life of a Paladin, I'll take the living here."

Lady Thoris smiled, sitting quietly with her daughter.

The following morning started earlier than usual, with a loud siren that brought Arden awake instantly.  She leaped from her bed, dressing and donning her boots before she reached the door.  She was down the hall in an instant, meeting her father in his study.

"Pirates," he growled.  "At the port, and a small band here."  The estate shook.  "They've forced their way through the airlock and are nearly into the house."

"Where's Mother?"

"Safe," Lord Thoris replied.  "I planned for this years ago.  I don't suppose you'd be willing to--"

"Don't be daft."

"Right.  Sorry."

"So, they're coming in through the front entrance?" Arden looked at the screen in her father's desk, tracking the movements of the pirates through the estate.

"As we speak," he replied, glumly.

Arden grinned, energy emanating from the pentacle tattooed on her left palm and flowing between her hands.  "I'll be back in a moment."  She ran out of the study toward the stairs.  The pirates would have to come up the stairs to raid the house.  The downstairs could not be accessed from the entryway.  What had been one of the great annoyances of Arden's childhhod was a blessing to her now, so long as she could reach the stairs before the pirates were all the way up.  As she arrived, she saw they were nearly to the top. 

The lead pirate fired at her, but she waved the bolt away with one glowing hand as she jumped up on to the railing of the balcony that overlooked the entryway.  She ran toward the pirates, dodging their blaster fire, then leaped off the railing and kicked the lead pirate in the face, completing her spin and landing in a crouch, looking down toward her attackers.  The pirates rushed forward, but with a wave of her hands, she erected a barrier of solid light at the top of the stairs.  She held both hands up, maintaining the barrier, then pushed one hand forward, causing a light-spike to jut out, skewering the lead three pirates.  As the remaining invaders struggled to hold their positions on the stairs against the falling bodies of their comrades, Arden dissolved the wall, jumped up into the air, and let fly a barrage of glowing darts that pierced the skulls of all but one of the pirates.  She landed gently at the foot of the stairs just as the last remaining pirate tumbled down.  He looked up at her from his place at her feet.  She glowered down at him.

"Magi," he gasped.

"You talk," she growled, "and I turn you over to the police.  You tell me what syndicate you're working for, and you get to live out your sad little life on an asteroid somewhere.  Refuse to tell me, or worse, lie to me, and I'll trap you in the event horizon of a black hole, where you'll spend eternity dissolving into void."

The pirate swallowed hard, blinked, then nodded.  "I'll talk!"

Arden smiled.  "There's a smart boy."

"It was one of the Earth syndicates," he said later, tied to a chair in Lord Thoris' study, "he wouldn't say which one."

"He?" Arden glared. 

"The guy who gave us the job.  He said he was Earther, but wouldn't say what boss he worked for."

"And who were you lot?"

"Smugglers and killers, most of us.  We're who you called if you wanted something stolen, and wanted the thieves to be ugly about it."

Arden scowled.  "But not you.  You're going to tell me that you're just a hapless smuggler, got mixed up with the wrong gang?"

"No, ma'am," said the pirate.  "I'm one of the worst killers of the bunch."  He smiled.  "I work mostly with knives."  He stood, severed ropes falling away, and brandished a small knife.  "Event horizon of a black hole," he said with a laugh.  "Please.  I've fought Magi before."  He moved to throw the knife, but a glowing spike through his brain caused it to fall from a limp hand.  The spike withdrew, and the pirate's corpse fell to the floor.

"Arden!" her father shouted, aghast.

"This is the Road I walk, Father," Arden said calmly.  "Yes, it is a brutal one, often far worse than this.  When it stops being so, I can begin to consider the life of a Paladin."  She gestured to the dead pirate.  "This one knows nothing.  My spike read his thoughts before it killed him."  She turned and walked from the room, calling back to her father over her shoulder, "I'm taking one of the speeders to the port.  Call ahead to the guards there, let them know a Magi is coming."

Lord Thoris was quiet and still for long moments after his daughter left. 

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Long Haul to the Outer Planets

“It is too goddamn early to be going to work,” he grumbled, stomping to his car and huddling in his jacket against the pre-dawn chill.  His car was on one of the upper decks, those reserved for parking, so he had a very wide view of the surroundings.  He could see the Manhattan Arcology in the distance, a massive gleaming edifice, rising up from the woodlands and parks of its island to tower over everything else.  He’d heard its own parking decks even pierced the upper atmosphere and were exposed to the vacuum of space, but he wrote that off as bullshit.  His own arcology, where he lived with his fiancee and millions of other people, was a nearly perfect block of glass and steel that rose somewhat less than majestically out of the swamps of what was once central New Jersey.  The smell could be almost murderous on some days, but this was the cheapest arcology with available housing, unless he wanted to live down south, and he most certainly did not.  Eventually, they wanted to get a place in one of the western towers, but that’s what everyone wanted, so they tended to stay full, and most vacancies were prohibitively expensive.

With one last look for Manhattan’s glittering spires, he got in his car, tossing his bag on the passenger seat.  He input his code, let the computer read his fingerprint, then flipped the ignition switches.  Switch number three flickered and the ignition sequence faltered, but all he had to do was punch the dash and it all worked okay.  There was a short in the switch’s wiring, which he kept forgetting to get fixed.  He put the car in gear and lifted off the parking deck, shooting straight up into the sky toward one of the myriad orbital stations.

It took less than an hour to reach the one he wanted, a small trucking depot in high orbit.  He was a driver for Spark n’ Breath, a company that provided industrial batteries and oxygen to various off-world settlements and industries.  He parked his car in his slot, waited a few seconds for pressurization, then hopped out and made for the dispatch office, hoping Rej wasn’t working today.

“Soldier Boy!”  Rej was working today.  Because of course he was.

“Hey, Rej,” he said, trying to keep his tone light.

“Got a great route for you today, Soldier Boy.”  If there was one thing about Rej he really wanted to punch (and there was more than just one thing), it was the special little smile he had when handing out the really shitty routes.  That smile was in full effect today.

He closed his eyes, willing himself to stop thinking about murder.  It was beginning to depress him how often he had to suppress thoughts about murder.  Yeah, it was usually only when Rej worked dispatch, but still.  That greasy little fuck must live behind that desk.  Opening his eyes, he forced a very cheerless smile.  “What route is that, Rej?”

“Outer Planets,” Rej said, holding out the route chip.

His smile didn’t just slip, it jumped right off his face to its death in a pile on the floor.  He stood there, looking from the chip to Rej and back again.  He couldn’t seem to make his arm move to take it.  “Outer Planets,” he repeated in the flattest of tones.

“Yeah,” Rej said, gesturing with the chip.  “And if you could get on with it, that would be great.  You’re not the only driver looking for his chip this morning.”

“But I was on Outer Planets twice last week,” he protested, still not taking the chip.  “What the fuck is this?”

“I don’t make the route assignments, Ralph, I just hand them out,” Rej said with his punchable little smile.  “Now take the fucking chip.”

Ralph growled and grabbed the chip, turning to stomp off toward the trucks.

“Oh, hang on,” Rej called out after him, in a voice that Ralph would happily stomp all over after he was done punching his smile.  “Don’t forget your keys.”  He tossed a set of keys and Ralph caught them.  He glanced idly at the number on the fob, then stopped in his tracks and turned right around.  “What the fuck is this?” he demanded, waving them at Rej.

“Looks like a set of keys,” Rej responded, pointedly not making eye contact with Ralph as he handed out the other chips.  “You still here?  I’d think you’d want to get going.  Outer Planets isn’t exactly a short run.”

“No, it’s two days at least,” Ralph said, desperately fighting his temper.  “Which is why I have to wonder why you just gave me the keys to a day rig.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Rej said in a voice that made it clear he wasn’t.  “Most of the long rigs are in for maintenance, and the ones that aren’t have been taken by the oldtimers.  You wanna go ask one of them to trade, be my guest.”

Ralph stood and seethed.  Any driver with less than five years had a better chance of breathing in space than getting an oldtimer to trade rigs.  “Well, how the fuck am I supposed to make a deep space haul with a day rig?”

“I don’t know,” Rej said, “or care.  You’re a resourceful guy, Soldier Boy.  Figure it out.”

Ralph made the herculean effort to resist beating Rej to a bloody smear against his desk and turned around and walked out to the trucks.  “Fine,” he muttered.  “They want me to make the Outer Planets with a day rig?  I’ll make the route with a day rig.  And I’ll do the whole thing, perfectly, in a fucking day.  Then I’ll come back here, whip my dick out, drop it on Rej’s desk, and they can all take turns sucking it.  And then they can say ‘Oh, Ralph, King of the Fucking Deep Space Haulers, we will never give you anything but your most preferred routes again, because you are the greatest, and we are but ignorant fucking peasants’.”  A low chuckle to his right made him stop short.  He turned to see one of the oldtimers leaning against the wall, having a smoke.

“Hey, Jack,” Ralph said with a wave.

“Hey, kid,” Jack said.  Jack knew Ralph’s name, but oldtimers never called newkids by name.  You had to have at least ten years on you before you got called by name.  Ralph had less than two.  “I hear you got stuck in deep space with a day rig.”

“Yeah.” Ralph didn’t bother asking how Jack knew.  Jack knew everything.  He’d been driving space freighters since before Ralph was born.

“You gonna put up with that?”

“Not much else I can do, right?” Ralph asked.  “It’s the job.  I don’t do it, someone else will.  No shortage of people looking for work these days.”

“Eh, that may be,” Jack put out his cigarette and dropped the butt in an atomizer.  “Don’t mean you gotta let dispatch fuck you in the ass whenever they’re horny, though.”

Ralph laughed.  “Yeah...”

“So, what are you gonna do?”

Ralph sighed.  “I’m gonna do the job,” he said.  “I’ll take it up with dispatch when I get back.”

Jack nodded.  “Yeah, okay,” he said.  “Listen, you got my comm number?”

Ralph nodded.

“A day rig can get you through a run like this,” Jack said, “but it ain’t fun, and it ain’t easy.  You get in any trouble out there, you call me.”  He eyed Ralph up.  “I’ve been watching you, kid.  You got the grit for this job, no mistake about that, but you need to remember that no job is worth your life.  You get in trouble, you call.  No shame in it.”

Ralph smiled.  “I will.  Thanks, Jack.”

Jack shook his hand.  “Good luck, kid.”  As Ralph walked off toward the trucks, Jack called out, “Hey, why’s Fuckface in there call you Soldier Boy?”

“Long story!” Ralph called back.

“You can tell me when you get back!”

Ralph waved and made for his truck.

About an hour later, he was halfway to Venus.  He had to admit, if he was going to be stuck in a day rig for this route, at least it was a nice one.  It was almost brand-new, had a sweet engine, and all the latest gadgets.  True, there was no habitat cab, and the seats were going to suck to sleep in, but it was sealed up tight and had its own nutrimat.  He wouldn’t freeze or asphyxiate, and the nutrimat meant he wouldn’t starve, either.  He keyed the rig’s entertainment system in to his music library, punched up some decent driving music, and set the autopilot for Mercury.  While in transit, he read over his itinerary on the rig’s computer screen.  As he scrolled through his stops, he made a face.

“Aw, fuck me,” he said.  “Port Ellis?  I have to go to Port fucking Ellis?  Shit.”  Port Ellis was an old spaceport on the moon’s dark side.  There hadn’t been an official launch from Ellis since Vonnegut Station went online decades earlier, but people still lived and, more or less, worked there.  Still, it was a slum.  Not much in Port Ellis these days except black market space launches and jump clubs, which meant he had to deal with gangsters and pulsepunks whenever he delivered there.  Pulsepunks were no big deal, especially if there were only a few of them.  A pulsepunk’s idea of a good time was to go to a jump club and fry his or her brain with a localized electromagnetic pulse.  Apparently, the high was fantastic, but excessive use led to long-term memory loss and a significant drop in intelligence.  Pulsing was also highly addictive, so pretty much all use ended up being excessive.  Most pulsepunks barely remembered how to dress themselves or what their names were, so they were easy enough to deal with in small groups.  It was the gangs that controlled the few functioning launch docks that were the worst.  They ordered big, but hardly ever paid their bills, and figured a gun in your face was enough to settle the matter.  A few years ago, Spark n’ Breath tried refusing delivery, and wound up losing a third of their fleet to conveniently timed “accidents”.  Needless to say, no one liked delivering to Port Ellis.  But, at least it was early in the route.  After Ellis, there were a few stops on Mars, but the majority of his route was the outer planets.  The Jupiter gas mines, the orbital Saturn shipyards, research stations and colonies on most of their moons, as well as a few deep settlements around Neptune.  He called up a system map and tried a few different route variations.  He didn’t have any of the asteroid mines on this run, which was good, as that meant he could take the transway and bypass the Belt altogether.  The transway was tricky, though.  It used the new transtunnel technology, which was able to get vehicles up to just shy of light speed.  It was really tricky to maneuver at those speeds, though, especially a truck loaded with powerpacks and oxygen tanks, but he’d done it once or twice.  If he could get a clear run through the transway at top speed, he might actually be able to do this in a day.  An exceedingly long day, to be sure, but he was willing to give it a go.  “Provided,” he muttered, “there aren’t any problems.”  That made him laugh.  The way his day was already going, of course there were going to be problems.

There were, and they started almost immediately.  First were the usual docking issues.  Given Mercury’s proximity to the sun, gravity was always tricky.  Combined with the fact that he was docking with one of the massive rolling cities of the Mercury terminator, he had a hell of a time just bringing his rig in.  He was much better at it now than when he started.  He’d stopped crashing into things, at least, and could sometimes bring his rig into the Terminator City One docks in one go.  Today was not one of those days (it took three tries), but he finally docked without incident and went to see the loadmaster.  That’s when his troubles really began.

“Yeah, the powerpacks look right,” she said, comparing his manifest to hers, “but your oxygen numbers are way off.  I got twice as much here for you as you say you’re taking.”  This was typical.  Spark n’ Breath had been bought out by Interplanet about ten years prior, which meant they were part of the Interplanet industrial network, and that included the Mercury solar harvesters.  The harvesters were the main reason Mercury had been colonized in the first place, and comprised the majority of the rolling terminator cities.  They towed huge arrays of solar collectors, keeping just at the edge of daylight, where the temperature was habitable, and from those collectors charged batteries for power plants throughout the system.  Interplanet owned these, and thus had few discrepancies with their various subsidiaries.

The oxygen farms were another story.  Smaller by far than the harvester cities, the oxygen farms were rolling homesteads that scooped up dust from Mercury’s surface and extracted breathable oxygen from it.  The farms were independently owned and operated, usually granted as pensions to veterans by the government.  Unfortunately, not being part of Interplanet, they each had their own methods of bookkeeping, which led to issues like the one faced today.

“Hell with it,” Ralph said.  “Load ‘em up.  I’ll figure it out later.”  He wasn’t going to get held up just loading the truck, especially not to haggle and argue with some old homesteader.  Just his luck, he’d get some veteran of the Alien Wars, and after Rej’s “Soldier Boy” bullshit, he wasn’t in the mood for some grizzled old bughunter giving him a hard time.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.  I’ll work it out with corporate on my way.”

“You’ll need to sign off on the discrepancy,” she held out a tablet and stylus, and he scrawled his name at the bottom of the manifest.  She pointed over to a small lounge off the dock area.  “May as well grab some coffee or something,” she said.  “Gonna be about twenty minutes to a half hour before you’re loaded up.”

He checked a sigh.  It wasn’t her fault.  “Yeah, okay,” he said.

She smiled at him.  “I’ll make it quick as I can.”

“Thanks,” he said, returning the smile.  He went to the lounge and ordered up a coffee and a breakfast sandwich from the nutrimat.  He hadn’t eaten yet, and figured this was better than anything he’d get from his truck unit.  When he sat down, he noticed someone else in the lounge with him.  Ralph guessed he was an oxygen farmer, and from the look of him, an ex-marine to boot.  He glanced over at Ralph.

“You running freight?”


“Spark n’ Breath?”

Ralph nodded.  The logo was on his jacket.  Tentatively, he asked, “You a veteran?”

The other man held up his forearm, displaying the logo of the Interplanetary Marine Corps tattooed there.

“Right.”  Ralph ate his sandwich.

“You?” the man asked.

Ralph shook his head.  “I tried to enlist during the last war, but I was too young.”

The man shrugged.  “They need soldiers on the Tau Ceti mission,” he said.

“Yeah.”  Ralph wanted to kick himself.  Why the hell had he started this conversation?  Well, he was in it now.  You didn’t just blow off a marine vet.  “That’s deep space, no return type stuff.  I got a fiancee.”

“What does she do?”

“Medic, Second Class.”

“Mission needs medics too.  Hell, her being a medic and if you sign on as a soldier, you’d get a damn sweet stake in the colony once you got there.”

“I know,” Ralph forced the last of his sandwich down his throat, washing it down with the bitter and greasy nutrimat coffee.  “We talked about it, but she wants to stay in-system.  She has family here, and...”

“Yeah, I get it,” the veteran said, not unkindly.  He even favored Ralph with a smile.  “I faced down all manner of bug-eyed bastards in the War and didn’t blink,” he said, “but I ain’t never met a woman couldn’t tie me in knots just by lookin’ at me.  You love her?” he asked.

Ralph grinned.  “More than anything.”

The veteran nodded and stood.  “That’s my check ready,” he said in response to a name being called over the loudspeaker.  As he left, he clapped Ralph on the shoulder.  “Good luck on your run,” he said.


The conversation still rang in his ears later as he approached Port Ellis.  He’d been keeping up with reports of the Tau Ceti mission.  The first convoy had left a few years back, with another scheduled to go in a few months.  Reports came back sporadically from the first convoy, and they were having a bit of a rough time of it.  The treaty that ended the last war kept the aliens out of the solar system, but any interstellar ships were fair game.  They were suffering near-constant attacks from marauders.

“And here I am delivering fucking batteries and air,” he muttered, locking in his docking beam and cutting the ion drive, “while across the galaxy, space marines bleed and die for our people.”

He was in no mood for the crew of pulsepunks that jumped him when he stepped out of his truck.  They surrounded him instantly.  These weren’t too far gone.  Just pulsed-out enough to be mean and dumb, but not so much to be incompetent.

“You got packs, man?” one asked.  Pulsepunks went for the batteries.  It could run their personal jumpers for a while, and that was cheaper than hitting the clubs.

“Not for you,” he growled.

“Oh, I think it is for me,” the punk replied, drawing a knife.

“You think?” Ralph snarled. “That’s a bit beyond you assholes now, isn’t it?”  Without waiting for a reply, he reached out and grabbed the hand that held the knife, breaking the wrist.  The punk screamed and dropped his knife.  Ralph took his head and slammed it in the door of his truck, then dropped him, where he lay twitching in the dirt.  Ralph took his meanest glare and threw it around the rest of the group.  “Anyone else?”

The punks scattered, leaving their ostensible leader to die of a cracked skull on the loading dock. Ralph locked up the cab of his truck and went to unload.

It was fairly straightforward.  A young woman had bought a run-down ship launch and was trying to get a legitimate charter business off the ground.  “Been flying a while,” she said.  “I’ll do freight if I have to, but I really want to run a passenger service.”

“Out of here?” Ralph looked around skeptically.  “Good luck.”

“Yeah, I know,” she grinned.  “I’m gonna need it.  Eh, it may not be glamorous, or even remotely safe, but I gotta do something, right?”  She signed the invoice and thumbed her credits into Ralph’s tablet.  He wished her luck again and returned to his ship.  

The pulsepunk was still there, moaning.  Ralph stepped on him as he climbed into his truck.  Soon, he was on his way to Mars.  Mars was quick and uneventful, and he was soon back on his way again.  It was a few hours until the Belt, so he set the autopilot, lowered the music, and leaned back for a nap.

He was roused from his nap by the insistent chime of the alarm and the crackling, vaguely feminine voice of the navcomputer.

“Approaching Transway One.  Manual operation required.  Approaching Transway One.  Manual operation required.  Approaching--”

“Yeah, okay.  Shut it.”  The voice stopped, and Ralph grabbed the controls, Laying in a straight line for the entrance to the transway.  Suddenly, the navcomputer started up again.

“Warning.  Incoming asteroid storm.  Warning.  Incoming asteroid storm.  Warning.  Incoming aster--”

“I see it!  Shut the fuck up!” Ralph quickly donned a pair of navgoggles, which would give him a heads-up tactical display wherever he looked.  He saw the asteroids coming in from the upper left.  It was a big storm, and he was going to hit it just before the transway.  “Shit,” he muttered, flipping a few switches and pulling a lever.  The engine settled into a lower hum, and a repeller field activated around the truck.  The field would keep the asteroids from damaging the truck too much, but they could still knock him around, and a big enough rock would plow right through the field.  He sent off a quick note to dispatch.  They’d send someone out to look for him after the storm cleared if he didn’t call in.  He stroked the dashboard of the truck.  “Okay, baby,” he said.  “Let’s just get through in one piece.  Nothing fancy.”  He took a deep breath, switched the music over to a Venusian speedcore band he liked, and turned the volume way up.  He took another breath, ignoring the thudding of his heart in his chest, and punched the drive, speeding toward the oncoming storm at maximum velocity.

The field handled the smaller rocks with no problem, and he was avoiding the larger ones.  He banked and rolled, using the gravity of the larger rocks to move him around them and through the storm.  He was just beginning to think he was almost out when a large asteroid clipped the back of his truck.  The field prevented any damage, but the impact still caused him to spin wildly.

“Fuck!” he shouted, shifting the drive lever down, and maxing out the inertial dampeners in the cargo area. He wrestled with the wheel, struggling to bring the careening truck under control.  He almost had it, when another rock hit him and sent him spinning off in another direction.  “Fuck fuck fuck!” He pulled the axis lever and dropped down through the field.  This was only a temporary measure, as he was now at the wrong angle for hitting the transway.  If he passed it, he’d have to loop around through the storm again.  “No fucking way is that happening,” he muttered.  Getting the truck under control, he slammed it into gear and punched the accelerator.  He had a few more close calls, but made it through the storm with no further mishaps.  As he approached the entrance to the transway, he did a quick status check.

“No significant damage detected, to vehicle or cargo,” the computer informed him.

“Ok, good,” he breathed a sigh of relief.  “Now, on through the--”


“Oh, what now?”

“Velocity exceeds recommended safe maximum for transway entry,” the computer announced.

He looked up and saw the entrance approaching much faster than he’d expected.  “Oh, fuck me,” he muttered.  “Fuck me sideways.”

“Prepare for sublight transit,” the computer warned, “in 3... 2... 1.”

The stars blurred around him and he was slammed back in his seat.

It was not the easiest of rides through the transway.  At the speed he was going, it was nearly impossible to keep the truck straight.  It bounced against the walls of the transpace tunnel, and, since those walls weren’t actually solid, but made of something called “exotic energy”, that meant his repeller field did absolutely nothing to protect the truck.  Shockwaves boomed through the truck as it shook from one side of the transway to the other.

“Warning,” the computer droned.  “Structural integrity compromised.  Warning.  Structural integrity--”

“I get it!” he yelled.  “I broke the fucking truck!”  He growled deep in his throat.  “Status of cargo!”

“Cargo is undamaged.”

“Well, there’s some good news.”

“Driver compartment has sustained significant damage.  Structural integrity reaching life-threatening levels.”

“And there’s the bad.”

He shot out the other end of the transway, just at the edge of Jupiter’s gravity well.  An alarm sounded.

“Warning.  Driver compartment compromised.  Prepare for cabin depressurization.  Warning.  Driver compartment compromised.  Prepare--”

“How long?” Ralph asked.  He was already digging around under the seat for the emergency suit.

“Cabin depressurization in thirty seconds.”

“Oh, awesome,” he said, tearing open the case that held the suit.  “Just fucking awesome.”

“Cabin depressurization in twenty seconds.”

“Fuck you.”  He unpacked the suit and began pulling it on.

“Cabin depressurization in ten seconds.”

“Suck my di-ick,” he said in a sing-song voice, zipping up the suit and attaching the helmet.  He turned a knob to pressurize the suit.

“Cabin pressurization in five, four, three...”

He strapped himself in and gripped the wheel.

“...two, one.  Cabin depressurizing.”

A loud hiss filled the cabin, then nothing.  Ralph switched on his helmet speakers, which automatically keyed in to the truck’s systems.  He flipped a switch to turn off life support.  No sense wasting heat and air on empty space.

“How much damage has been done to the driver compartment?” he asked.

A display of the driver compartment came up on the dashboard screen, flashing red in multiple places, many of which could only be repaired from outside.

“Shit,” he muttered.  “You know, a long hauler wouldn’t have cracked open so easy.  A long hauler could have handled being knocked around a transway a few times.”  He growled.  “Fucking day rig.”  He closed his eyes a moment.  These emergency suits had maybe a few hours life support at most.  If he didn’t get the truck fixed, he was dead.  “Okay,” he said, popping a hatch in the ceiling.  A repair kit slid out, and he attached it to his suit.  The suit was built for modular additions and the kit attached easily.  he reached for the door.

“Warning,” the computer chimed in his ear.  “Emergency suits are not rated for extra-vehicular activity.”

“Yeah, well, my lungs aren’t rated for the vacuum of space,” he retorted.  “So, my suit rating can suck it.  It’s just missing some mags on the boots.  I’ll be careful.”  He reached for the door again.

“By exiting the vehicle, you knowingly and willingly absolve Interplanet and its subsidiary companies of all liability in the event of your death.”

“Yeah yeah,” he said.  “Don’t worry.  No one’s gonna sue the boss.”  Without waiting for more arguments from the computer, he opened the door and left the truck.

It was rough going.  With no magnetics on the suit, he had to hold on tight with one arm or his legs while he patched up holes and fixed hoses and wires.  He managed to finish the repairs and get back into the truck with a half-hour of life support left.  He did a quick system check, then repressurized the cabin and brought life-support back online.  Everything came back green, and the cabin filled with air and heat again.  He kept the suit on until the cabin wasn’t so cold, then replaced it in its case, making sure to log in the computer that it needed maintenance.

He checked the time.  He’d been out on this run for ten hours, and he still had most of his deliveries to go.  “Oh yeah,” he muttered, voice dripping with sarcasm, “this is so much better than fighting aliens on a deep space colony mission.”

He made it to the Jupiter gas mines with no trouble, dropping off their shipment.  One of their mechanics looked at his truck before he left.

“Yeah, you didn’t do too bad, for doin’ it in space with just an emergency suit and a repair kit.”  He nodded respectfully.  “Yeah, definitely a solid job, all things considered.  Still, you’re gonna want a proper repair and replace done on this thing sooner than later.”

“Yeah,” Ralph said.  “You think it’ll last me the run?”

“What’s left?”

“I got the Europa research station, a colony on Ganymede, then the Saturn shipyards and a quick drop on Neptune.”

“Then back to Earth?”


“Hmm,” the mechanic gave the work another going over.  “Well, I think you should be okay.  If I had the parts, I’d do something for you here, but we got shit.”

“No, it’s cool, thanks,” Ralph said.  “I appreciate you checking it out for me.”

“Why the fuck they got you this far out in a day rig, anyway?”

Ralph rolled his eyes.  “Ah, you know how it is, man.  Corporate bullshit.”

The mechanic nodded.  “I hear that.  Well, you be careful, man.  Drive safe.  Take it easy through the transway.”

“Thanks.”  They shook hands, and Ralph made the quick hop to Europa.  He was about to dock, but a quarantine warning came up on his dash.

“Quarantine warning. Docking prohibited.”

“Why are they under quarantine?” He loved quarantine warnings.  It was a free pass to totally blow off a delivery.

“Quarantine logs show a mindworm infestation.”

“Ugh,” Ralph said, making a face.  “Fucking mindworms.”  Mindworms were telepathic brain parasites, that infected their hosts and turned them into hive-minded slaves.  All off-world settlements, particularly those on or around the outer planets, were equipped with sensors to detect mindworm infestations and initiate quarantine.  All ships were grounded and all incoming traffic warned to stay away, until a special team could arrive and clear out the infestation.  He was about to move on to Ganymede when his comm system beeped with an incoming message.  It was the head of the Europa research station.  He appeared on the dash screen and started talking.

“Quarrrrantine cannnncellled,” he slurred.  “F-f-faaaalllsse alarrrrmmmm...”

“Yeah,” Ralph snorted derisively, “that sounds convincing.  Nice try, wormhead.”

“Therrrre isss noooooo mind-mind-mindworrrrmmm innnfesssstaaaaaationnn...”

“Uh-huh,” Ralph answered, plotting his course for Ganymede.  “Then why are you bleeding out your eyes?”


“Yeah.  That’s what I thought.  You folks have fun, now.”

“N-n-noooo! Wait!”

Ralph cut the line and took off.  “Poor bastards,” he muttered.

His stop on Ganymede went smoothly, and he even managed to get more solid repair work done by one of their mechanics.

“There you go,” she said.  “That should last you a little while.”


“No problem.  You got much left on your route?”

“Nah,” he said.  “Quick stop on Neptune, then I’m headed home.  Good thing, too.  I’m fucking beat.”

“Long day?”

“Been going about twelve hours now,” he said.  “I had a nap back between Mars and the Belt, but it didn’t help that much.”

“Damn,” she said.  “You want to crash the night here?  We got plenty of spare quarters.”

“No, thanks,” he said.  “Bastards gave me a day rig for a two-day job, I’m gonna get it done in a day.”

“Right.”  She nodded.  “Well, you’re all set.  Safe trip home.”


Of course, his final stop couldn’t go smoothly.  When he arrived, he found Neptune was in the midst of open revolt.  The colony sought independence from the solar system, and the revolutionaries took him hostage the minute he docked with their orbital station.

“Oh, you people are fucking kidding me,” he said.

“We will not be mocked!” their leader screeched.

“Yeah, well, too late for that,” he replied.

“Enough!  We will force the government to take us seriously!  They will agree to our demands!”

“Honestly?” Ralph laughed.  “You have a fucking zap gun to my head and even I can’t take you seriously.”  He shook his head.  “I mean, come on.  You think the fucking government of the entire solar system is going to care because you took one delivery driver hostage?  Most of the time, the rest of us forget you’re even out here.  Hell, most of the time, we forget this whole planet is even out here.  You want it?  It’s yours.  I doubt the system is going to miss a big frozen ball of farts out at the ass end of space.”

The leader looked down at him, aimed his zap gun, then, with a sigh, lowered it.  “Yeah,” he said, “you’re right.  Sorry, man.”

“Nah, it’s cool.”  Ralph shrugged.  “I knew you weren’t going to shoot me.”

“Yeah.  It’s just...” the leader stared off into the distance.  “It’s just, we’ve been out here so long, and no one cares, you know?  It’s like you said, no one even remembers we’re here.  I mean, everyone cares about Jupiter and Saturn, with their gas mines and shipyards and...”

“Ah, shit!” Ralph swore.  “Damn it!”


“I forgot Saturn.  I had to make a delivery to the shipyards.  Crap.”  He sighed.  “Ah well, at least I remembered here and not halfway back to Earth.”

“Wait,” the leader said, “you forgot about Saturn?”

“Yeah.  Look, it happens.  No need to rub it in.  I’ve been going for over twelve fucking hours out here...”

“No no.  It’s just, you remembered us, but you forgot Saturn.  Saturn and its big stupid rings and fancy shipyards.”

“Uh, yeah,” Ralph said.  “Okay.  If that makes you feel better.”

“It does.”

“Awesome.  Congratulations.  Now,” he held out his tablet, “if you could just authorize payment, I’ll be on my way.”

It was another quick stop at the shipyards in orbit around Saturn.  Most of the drydock space was taken up by the work being done on the second interstellar colony ark for the Tau Ceti mission.  The ship itself was complete, and it was larger than anything Ralph had ever seen.  It easily dwarfed even the largest space station, and in many ways resembled a small moon.  He flew around it once, then docked.

“Quite a ship,” he said to the receiving manager of the shipyards.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Just about done, too.  This shipment of packs and tanks was one of the last things we were waiting on.”

“You mean, this is all going on the ark?”

She nodded.  “Anything goes wrong out there, folks are going to be real glad of some spare batteries and breathable air.”

“Huh,” he smiled.  He was glad he hadn’t completely forgotten this stop.

“Anyway,” the receiving manager said, “everything looks good.”  She handed back his tablet.

“Alright then,” he said.  “Good luck with the launch.”


And then he was back in his truck, ready for the long haul back home.  He yawned and his stomach rumbled, reminding him he hadn’t eaten since his quick bite on Mercury.  He set a course for the transway and switched on the autopilot.  As the truck made its way toward the Belt, he turned on the nutrimat.  It was a pretty basic system, just nutrient bars, water, and caffeine solution.  

“Blargh,” he made a face.  “They can’t even call it coffee.  But, I’m hungry and tired, so...”  He dialed up a bar and a cup of caffeine, large.  He also dialed up some water to wash it all down.  He was glad he did.  He wouldn’t have been able to swallow it otherwise.  Still, he’d definitely needed it.  By the time he reached the transway, he had a bit more energy.

He switched off the autopilot, and as there was no storm this time, made a smooth passage through the transway.  It was still a struggle to keep the truck steady, but there were no collisions, and he emerged from the other side in one piece, for all that he was utterly exhausted.  He was at almost twenty hours now, and was in dire need of his bed.  He set the autopilot for high Earth orbit, and was just able to finish his log before nodding off.

The alarm woke him from a deep sleep, and he groggily took the wheel with a jaw-cracking yawn.  He brought the truck in with no issues and was pleased to see that Rej was not working dispatch.

“Hey, Bev,” he said, yawning.

“Hey, yourself,” she said.  “Didn’t expect you until at least tomorrow.  Something wrong?”

He shook his head, tossing the route chip and keys on her desk.  “It’s all in the log.  Had some issues, but made all my stops.  Well, except Europa, but that’s in there too.”

“Okay, hon,” she said with a smile.  “You in tomorrow?”

“Nope,” he said, stifling another yawn.  “Off the next two days.”

“Good,” she said.  “Get some sleep.”

“You know it.”  With a wave, he was gone.

The drive home was a blur, but he made it to the arcology without mishap, parked his car, and took the elevator down and over to his apartment block.  He was barely able to walk by the time he entered the apartment, and fell into bed half-dressed.  His fiancee was already asleep and she rolled over, curling up in the crook of his arm, laying her head on his chest.

“I didn’t expect you until tomorrow,” she said.

“Disappointed?” he grinned.

“No, jerk,” she said, punching him playfully.  “Pleasantly surprised.”

He smiled.

“I’m glad you’re home,” she said, closing her eyes.

“Mmm,” he said, already half asleep.  “Me too.”