“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?”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“I’m glad you’re home,” she said, closing her eyes.
“Mmm,” he said, already half asleep. “Me too.”