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Gentleman’s Wager

A Gentlemen’s Wager

 

At the Twilight Lounge on Mercury, the sun behaves in an odd way. It rises, grows larger, and then it begins to move backwards, then it resumes course and shrinks as it sets. Aside from Bernie the owner/tender of the Twilight Lounge, not many of those who come to the bar notice this odd behavior. This is because a Mercury “day” is almost three Earth months long.  At first all of this was all fascinating to the barkeep. Now after nearly fifteen years here, the only time he noticed the sun’s behavior was when a miner had spent enough time in the bar to comment on the reverse track of his shadow. Another unique view at the bar is the light show during Mercury’s sunrise and sunset. The thin atmosphere consists of charged atoms deposited by solar winds. The glow of activity makes the Aurora Borealis on Earth seem like a cartoon in comparison.

Despite the natural wonders that can be seen from the Twilight Lounge, most of its patrons give the sights no more than a passing glance. The miners, mechanics, and ore processing workers who come to the only privately run tavern and recreation facility on Mercury aren’t there for the view. If you look carefully you may spot a foreman or two, and some sporadic offworld executives, but their kind is rare. As vacation spots go, Mercury is not on anyone’s itinerary; therefore tourists are unheard of. On rare occasion an entrepreneur stops into the Twilight Lounge chasing some attempt at expanding the commerce on Mercury. Those individuals are quick to find out that on a planet barely larger than Earth’s moon, with nearly every square kilometer owned or leased by corporate interests, free enterprise is all but unknown.

Duane Rodgers was one of those rare rogue entrepreneurs. To be fair, Duane preferred to refer to himself as a venture capitalist. The truth was, he seldom had much capital to venture and this left him drifting from scheme to scheme, always in search of the one break that would catapult him into the lifestyle he was sure to have been born to. Duane hadn’t had the profits from brokering a real estate deal on Venus Station for long before using nearly all of the credits to chase after a gem strike on Mercury that was promised to be a winner. All he ended up finding was an empty mine. Now he was stuck on Mercury without even enough credits to leave this rock. But where most people saw disappointment, Duane saw opportunity.

The Twilight Lounge seemed to be full of opportunities today. He would have to choose his next business partner with care. Most people came to Mercury for only one reason, to make money. For Duane, that was a good foundation to work from, but mining rocks requires hard work in the pursuit of fortune. His usual success was making a pitch to the kind of people looking for the same thing he was after, a quick, big strike. Most of these miners had too good of a work ethic for that. He surveyed the room for prospects. It was the shift change hour and most patrons were either coming or going. He decided to wait until after the commotion of the shift change before looking for someone who might be open to his pitch. A large man dressed in overalls noticeably missing the stains of Mercury’s dust and mining lubricants took a seat next to Duane at the bar. He set his hardhat down and summoned the barkeep. Bernie recognized the man instantly and with apparent good will. This was promising to Duane.

“Well hello, Willibow. Haven’t seen you in quite a few shifts,” Bernie said warmly while pouring a drink the man hadn’t ordered, but happily accepted.

“My operation just finally broke through one hell of a dense iron vein and hit one of the bigger deposits of meglasite found in a long time in these here parts.”

“Well, congratulations!”

“Oh, don’t get too excited, Bernie. With the economy the way it is, there’s not a whole lot of station expansion going on right now. What little building is going on is being supplied by the bigger corporate mines. A private operation like mine will have a hell of a time peddling the meglasite to the processors.”

Duane could hardly believe his luck. The newcomer was possibly the one man on this rock that could use his services the most and he just landed himself right next to him.

“Damn corporations are the only ones making money these days,” Duane offered.

Willibow Banks had noticed Duane the moment he walked in. His two credit suit and fresh haircut made the stranger stand out in the crowd. Sitting down next to the stranger had been no accident. He needed a break for his operation and Willibow was just desperate enough to try using a smarmy offworld salesman type. He knew he treaded on thin ice, but it beat the alternative of selling out to some corporation.

“Refill this very observant young man’s drink on me, Bernie. What’s your name stranger?”

“I’m Duane Rodgers, Venture Capitalist, and thanks for the drink.”

“My name’s Willibow Banks. I own a private mining operation here. What brings you to the hardest rock in the solar system, Mr. Rodgers?”

“Opportunity, Mr. Banks, and please, call me Duane.”

“Alright, Duane, call me Willibow if you like. Tell me what opportunity you expect to find here.”

“I didn’t think I was going to find an opportunity until you showed up, Willibow.”

Both men were extremely pleased with the direction of the conversation. Duane’s unsuccessful gem strike here on Mercury had been meant as a quick diversion on his way to something he’d been waiting most of his adult life to capitalize on. To do that he needed a decent stake, but that had been lost. For his part, Willibow hadn’t remained one of the few private operations men on Mercury on hard work alone. He had a bit of the salesman personality in him like the menace seated next to him. He treated that hidden talent like evil powers that he drew upon only in time of need.

“First tell me what really brought you here, and then give me the sales pitch,” Willibow politely said to keep Duane from overplaying his song and dance.

“A retired miner on Venus Station told me about a gem strike he knew of. He claimed it was a sure thing. He even had the survey data to prove it.”

It wasn’t only Willibow who laughed when he heard it. Everyone in the room was turning to get a look at the latest sucker as word passed. Most of the people present had slunk away ashamed when they were found out for chasing the same story of the phantom gem mine. Duane welcomed the instant bonding the shared humiliation created.

“You’re right to laugh, Willibow. I was a fool for chasing after the wind like that. Trouble is that I only wanted the means to take advantage of an inheritance that’s finally coming to me.”

Willibow couldn’t hide the wave of frustration that rushed over him. He’d hoped for better than the angle this flim-flam bozo was attempting to peddle. “Mr. Rodgers, you disappoint me,” he said attempting to get up.

Duane was beginning to admire this man. His luck was improving. He grabbed the man’s shoulder and gently, but firmly reseated him.

“Hold on a minute, Willibow, I haven’t had a chance to tell you how this allows you to sell any amount of meglasite that you can possibly supply.”

Willibow relaxed. The stranger had just touched a sensitive button with him. He wasn’t out to make a big strike necessarily, just a comfortable living. Trouble was that the current downturn in the economy had squeezed his business to the brink of bankruptcy. He didn’t lease his claim; he actually owned full rights to the grid of Mercury that his operation worked. Breaking through to the deposit of meglasite had eaten up the reserves he’d built up in the last boom economy. There were nearly one hundred men and women depending on paychecks from his operation. They’d all have to take a hefty pay cut if they had to start work at the bottom of the heap in a corporate mine.

“Do you plan to buy my meglasite with that inheritance that’s coming due to you?”

“Oh, I assure you that if I was inheriting credits, I could find much better use of the funds than buying your ore, sir. No offence.”

Any other response would have been offensive to Willibow

“None taken,” Willibow replied.

“You see, Willibow, my grandfather built Pluto Station back when the search for the new frontiers began two centuries ago. The universe was a wide open place to explore then and leaping from Pluto made the most sense. Who’d have guessed back then that the galaxy was such a crowded place? Humanity thought we would be like Columbus reaching out to the New World. Instead we were like aborigines walking out of the jungle onto the streets of New York.”

“Pluto Station has been nothing more than a rusting research outpost for a hundred and fifty years now. Nobody beyond astronomers have been very interested in the rock since it orbited out of a good launch window to the Frontier. The rock’s too small and too far away for serious mining.”

“And it’s known for being devoid of even a speck of meglasite.”

“So your grandfather built a worthless station in orbit above a worthless rock, so what?”

“My grandfather built the station partly on the rights to its expansion. He thought he’d hit it big time when he won the contract to develop a station above a planet whose solar year is over two hundred and fifty Earth years.”

Duane emphasized this because under the Republic of Sol contract laws, the original developers of a station around each of the nine planets had first rights to expansion in that planet’s system for the period of one year. The developers were also entitled to renew the rights each year for the next ten years provided they were still expanding the station or building new ones around the planet at the end of each year. The writers of that law had intended the time to be an Earth year. Duane’s grandfather had bid on Pluto just before interstellar travel had been achieved by the human race. Before humanity started jumping to the stars, Pluto was no use to anyone. His grandfather was the only bidder for the planet and he was the fortunate recipient of timing (as well as a very good tip from a friend who just happened to work in propulsions research). Soon after his contract was awarded, there was a landmark court ruling on station owner rights that rocked the solar system. Because the contract law hadn’t been specific, the timeframe of one year would be applied to mean the solar year of the planet to be developed. His grandfather became quite rich very fast as the government contracts for launching facilities came in and his rights to the expansion were guaranteed for the next two hundred and fifty Earth years; ten times that if he renewed official occupancy each Pluto year. It became a family business when Duane’s father oversaw station expansions as the colony of New Terra in the Frontier was established. Interstellar launches were increasing exponentially, and they all left from Pluto.

Then something happened that his family hadn’t planned for. Pluto orbited right out of the launch window to the Frontier. The shipping fleet accountants realized it was just as easy to head out for the Frontier from Neptune or even Uranus; especially considering the proximity of orbits in relation to Earth and Mars, while Pluto drifted farther away. Pluto Station was abandoned like a ghost town in the Ancient West on Earth. The family fortune had been leveraged to pay for station expansions that were never used. Duane had been born into a family with no wealth and with the rights to a worthless multi billion credit station.

“You asked, ‘so what’, Willibow?’” Duane began after ordering a drink and staring in awe for a moment as the light show began on the first sunset he’d seen on Mercury. “There are two reasons you should be interested, my friend. One is that the orbit of Pluto will make the rock a perfect launch point in three years.”

Willibow interrupted, “Well the other reason better be good because it ain’t that important to cut a few hundred thousand kilometers off of a ten light year trip anymore.”

Duane looked around to be sure everyone had lost interest in the conversation. Then he took a drink and leaned in closer.

“Ever hear of the Frontier Express?”

“You mean the new ships that’ll be using the GE jump motor?”

“That’s it. Well the government’s been in contact with me. They want to launch the Express from my family’s station starting in three years.”

“Why your old, run down station?”

“I don’t know how much you know about the jump motor. Fact is, not many people really know any details yet, including me. What I do know is that the ‘jump’ in jump motor means just that. They’re going to get to New Terra in less than two weeks by hopping there. To do that, it’ll be best to have the shortest and clearest shot to the first refueling station. Above all other planets in the system, Pluto will be in the best alignment with the first refueling station in three years which is why they need my family’s station.”

“O.K., so if what you’re saying is true, then they already have the station, why would this become a market for my ore?”

“First of all, the station is built from over eighty year old technology. Secondly, the scientists using the station (at next to nothing I might add), have another five years on their lease. And the third reason is that the corporations that have all of the monopolies on the other stations weren’t in business in my grandfather’s day. No contracts for building materials have been digitized for Pluto. Right now it’s a free market, unless you care to make a play for something that better suits your situation Willibow.”

Willibow was both tantalized and appalled at the same time. In five minutes this man had him. If he was letting on to his desperation this charlatan could name his price and get it. He hoped that years of low stakes poker would pay off. He didn’t even want to consider the possibility that Duane was pulling some sort of scam. He needed this. Fortunately for him, Duane was as desperate as he was.

Duane was just as anxious at this moment. With an exclusive deal on the raw materials at just better than market prices, he’d have the edge he needed to secure the financial backing that a full station expansion required. This clouded his ability to see just how desperate Willibow was. Duane had been living on the verge of becoming an indentured laborer most of his adult life. His failed attempts at wheeling and dealing had nearly put him in debtor’s labor camps on many occasions. A leasing agent from the government had contacted him two months ago about what they wanted to do from his station. This had put him on the verge of regaining his family’s fortune.

“Together, Willibow, we can become very wealthy men. But I need your help now.”

“Just what is it you’re asking for?”

“All of what I’ve told you hinges on one main thing, that I continue my family’s occupation and expansion of Pluto Station. Because I haven’t been to Pluto station in just under fifteen Earth years, my claim to the station will expire in just thirty five days, despite the fact that I have five Earth years left before Pluto’s first year is up.”

“I thought you said that the years were measured by the planet’s orbit.”

“The duration of the contract may have been ruled as such, but the fine print of the contract only mentioned ‘continuous occupation’ without a specific timeframe. That opened the door for a precedent in the law which bases ‘continuous occupation’ on Earth law.”

“And I take it that you were last there not quite fifteen years ago.”

“You got it. And as you know, I was chasing the wind with the gem mine here, and truth be told, I’m flat broke.”

“And flat out of time. There ain’t no way you’re going to make it to Pluto in thirty five days. We both know that the only way to go directly from here to there in that time is to book a private yacht, and neither of us could afford that.”

“The scientists on my station take regular shipments from Saturn Station once a week. That gives me three weeks to get there. I just need a small stake to get to Saturn which is a much easier task.”

Willibow turned away from Duane in disbelief. Interplanetary travel was expensive enough when your schedule was flexible. Getting from Mercury to Saturn in three weeks on a shoestring budget was nearly impossible. He told the fool as much. His hopes seemed dashed. Duane almost believed Willibow, except he had nothing to lose. Not trying would be the same as trying and not succeeding. At least the latter offered some hope.

“I can make it to Saturn Station in three weeks and to Pluto in five, and I’m willing to wager on it.”

Willibow paused in mid drink from his glass. He rolled his eyes in Duane’s direction and saw that he was serious.  What could this man have to offer for a bet? As he saw it, the man had nothing to lose.

“Wager you say? Wager what? And do you have anything to back it up?”

“I’ll bet you an exclusive contract on my meglasite needs, and a one percent share in the rights, that I can make it to Pluto Station in time to hold my claim to the station.”

“Five percent, and supply rights to all building materials. What do I get if you loose.”

“Three percent and supply rights to all metal building materials. I know you know ore, I don’t know if you know plastics and the like. I need a fifty thousand credit stake for getting to Pluto. If I don’t make it, the government is allowed to buy out my rights to the station for one hundred thousand credits, we can make you the beneficiary on the title to my rights. That would double your money in just thirty five days.”

Willibow considered the options a moment. Duane had to look away to keep his anxiety under control. Both were silent for only seconds, but to Duane it seemed hours before Willibow spoke up again.

“I’ve leased one of my boring rigs to a tunnel project on Earth. My daughter is accompanying the rig there aboard a cargo ship leaving orbit tonight. They arrive at Earth in five days. I’ll stake you thirty thousand for the hundred thousand and get you to Earth aboard the cargo ship.”

“Earth is almost in the opposite direction of Saturn right now.”

“Yea, but it’s less than a quarter parsec behind this rock relative to Saturn, and I can assure you that there aren’t any transports heading to the outer planets from this forgotten wasteland. From Earth, you could find hundreds of ways to the outer planets. If you’re lucky, you may even get a straight shot to Pluto, though I doubt you could buy passage like that for thirty thousand credits.”

It didn’t take Duane long to consider his options. He extended his hand, “Deal. Tell me about your daughter, is she cute?”

“Oh she’s a looker alright, but she ain’t for the likes of you.”

“Come on Willie, I’m not about to make a move on a business partner’s daughter.”

“I don’t have a choice in who moves on my daughter, but you may want to meet her before you go getting ideas about her. I’ve seen her chew up and spit out your type many times over.”

Willibow settled up the tab on the drinks. He got up to lead Duane to his office where they could put their wager into motion. Willibow put out a hand to stop Duane as he got up.

“Get to Pluto in thirty five days and start making me a rich man and you can consider me a business partner. I’ll even let you call me Willie. Until then, this is a wager and I’m betting I’ll be getting one hundred grand in a month and that Willibow is about as familiar as you’ll ever be allowed.”

The rules for the wager were hammered out in Willibow’s office. After double checking the calendar, starting midnight Earth Standard Time, Duane had thirty six Earth standard days to set foot on Pluto Station and log into the registry network for retina identification. Willibow accessed the financial network to ensure he would be the payee benefactor should Duane not meet the deadline. The ease to which he accomplished this impressed Duane who recognized a few access maneuvers that would have landed Willibow in jail in a few jurisdictions. While he was in the financial network, Willibow set up an account for Duane’s thirty thousand credits. He retained the ability to freeze the account if he saw that Duane was trying to do anything beyond getting to Pluto with the credits. Then as they were toasting to the beginning of the adventure, one of Willibow’s mechanics entered the room and presented him with an item he’d had made while the other details were being finalized.

“I made it just like you asked boss. The only way this will come off is either with a key, or with a cutting torch that’d burn his hand it’s on right off,” the mechanic proudly pronounced as he held out a modified handcuff with a small black device welded to it.

“What the hell is this Willibow?”

“This is my last piece of insurance. I don’t want you booking passage to the Frontier on my thirty thousand credits. I’ve had my man here attach an ore tracking device to this handcuff. You’re going to wear it and I’m going to know where you are every step of the way. If I even suspect that you might jump to the Frontier, I’ll set off the alarm on this thing and customs will lock you up until I give them the clear.”

“You and I both know that you can’t get to the Frontier on ten times thirty thousand credits. I’m not about to go traveling about the solar system with this ridiculous thing for a bracelet.”

“Duane, I don’t believe you can get to Pluto in less than two months on ten times the thirty thousand credits I’m fronting you. But you do, so I’m going to have to assume that if you can do that, then the Frontier would be just as easy. You can wear this on your ankle out of sight for all I care, but you’re going to put it on right now while I watch so we can put this thing in motion. We only have a couple hours to get over to the spaceport and get you off of this rock.”

An hour and a half later they were at the mooring for the Fairchild, a rusted freighter that hardly looked space worthy. Duane wasn’t surprised. He’d taken a peek at Willibow’s financial worth while he had navigated the financial networks. It was amazing Willibow had the thirty thousand credits. He wished he hadn’t made the three percent deal on the rights before getting a look at Willibow’s situation.

“My daughter, Anaya, is in hold 458. You can meet her there. Good luck Duane.”

“Thanks Willibow. I’ll be in touch in less than thirty five days I assure you.”

Duane boarded the freighter without looking back. The device on his ankle bumped and jarred as he walked. He wasn’t sure if he was going to get used to it there. It wasn’t until he felt the gentle push of departure that it occurred to him that Willibow didn’t say how he could get a key. It could take months for the regular postal service delivery to Pluto, and that was assuming the DNA imprint on the key didn’t need to be from a live person. No matter now. He was anxious to see what kind of a woman his new business partner had for a daughter so he headed deeper into the ship looking for her.

He found her checking on the tunnel machine in hold 458. When Willibow had referred to Anaya as a “looker,” he wasn’t exaggerating. She wore a simple set of work clothes like she was ready to debut on a fashion runway. If she had makeup on, it had been applied very discretely, her natural features created the beauty she projected. Duane was instantly in love with the woman as he approached her. In an instant, she crushed his infatuation.

“Are you the dupe who’s taking my father’s money for a ride? Because I’ll tell you right now that I don’t approve of this bet and you are in way over your scheming little head if you try to double cross him.”

Duane stopped cold in his tracks. When Willibow said she’d eat him up and spit him out, he meant it. He was instantly glad his deal didn’t directly involve her or else it would have never been struck.

“Your father’s going to become a rich man off of me and you’re going to feel silly for instantly judging me.”

“Prove me wrong and I’ll admit it. I just don’t expect as much. Just stay out of my hair for the next couple of days and soon you’ll be in orbit around Earth and we can part ways.”

Duane honored Anaya’s wishes and kept to himself the next thirty-six hours. He mostly spent his time browsing transport schedules. He used his first credits to bribe the freighter’s captain into letting him access the shipping and services network under the captain’s logon identification. This allowed him to see transports not listed in the public networks. Anaya, who had insisted on being left alone, always seemed to be looking over his shoulder. She thought the bribe was a waste and let him know as much. Duane completed his research and printed out a list which he stowed away in the thigh pocket of his jumpsuit.

He was eating a miserable crew ration plate in a forward observation room on the crew tower when he noticed the reflection of a figure in the viewport. He turned to see Anaya standing there. She seemed almost anxious, though she tried to hide it. It was alarming that Duane’s cool headed shadow was so apparently shaken.

“Have you seen any of the crew?” she asked.

“I haven’t been looking for them. Why the concern, Anya? They can disappear pretty easy on a ship this size.”

“Because I just came from the bridge and it was abandoned.”

No question why she was upset. They were less than twelve hours from Earth now and space was going to get crowded soon. No self respecting captain would allow the Bridge to go unattended in this part of the solar system. Duane stood up and looked hard for deception in Anaya’s face. Bad humor would be far better than reality in this case. Suddenly her face was lit by a bright light beaming in the viewport. Duane spun around and watched an escape pod rocket out of it’s launch tube not far from the view port. Six others launched in quick succession. As the last one lifted away, Duane saw a small spacecraft approaching the bow on a collision course.

“Holy shit, it’s going to ram us!”

Anaya saw this and braced for the impact. There was a great fireball at the bow as the spacecraft disintegrated into the bulkhead of the Fairchild, but the mass of the freighter far outweighed the smaller craft and the jolt from the collision was minor.

“We’ve got to get out of here now before the decompression reaches this end of the ship,” Duane observed as he pushed passed Anaya.

The pod from the first escape hatch was gone just as they’d seen. Anaya grabbed two emergency air masks from a locker next to the hatchway. As they made their way down the main corridor, the emergency escape hatches were either locked out or the escape vehicles were gone. Duane realized that they’d probably find the same situation over the entire ship. Anaya had figured on the same idea.

“Let’s get down to hold 458. It has a direct hatch to Space,” she suggested.

“And nothing to go out there in, unless you’re suggesting we go in that beat up core driver of yours?”

“Got a better idea, con man?”

That hurt. Duane wanted to engage her fight, but the gravity plating went offline. He hated zero G, but he had enough experience to grab a handhold the instant he felt his weight changing. Anaya had just stood still and was left floating an inch off the floor. She waved her arms and legs in all directions but the laws of physics were working against her now as she had nothing to propel herself in any direction.

“Stop panicking, you shrew! Grab my hand.”

The “shrew” remark was just the comment needed to get her attention. She held out her hand to fly the middle finger, a maneuver that sent her in a backward flip. That was good enough for Duane, who promptly grabbed her foot and flung her body down the corridor in the direction of the main stair. She managed quite a few un-ladylike expletives as he dove after her.

The ship moaned and shook as they made their way down a main stairway and into the aft cargo holds. The air became progressively thinner as the minutes passed until the pair was forced to stop long enough to put on the emergency masks. Floating debris became an increasing impediment as it drifted by in the gentle flow of air gaining speed it rushed towards the vacuum of space. They reached hold 458 just as the escaping airflow was becoming more than they could manage.

The hold had been built to contain any imaginable cargo, including liquid. When Anaya opened the hatch, the air inside raced out at the same rate as the flow in the corridor. The pair quickly went inside and closed the hatch behind them. The rush of escaping air subsided. In the weightless environment and the sudden pull of air from the opened hatch, everything not tied down in the compartment started slowly floating their way. Fortunately, the only big thing in the hold was the Core Borer and its mass had been accelerated at a barely perceptible rate. They swatted the other items out of their path as they floated up to the machine.

“Will this thing hold together in the vacuum of space?”, Duane asked as he inwardly kicked himself for not asking this until they had reached the point where it was their only option.

“It operates in the near vacuum on Mercury’s surface. It’s designed to operate on any of the rocks floating in the solar system. Our problem is going to be opening the main hatch to space. This old boat doesn’t have a time delay on the switch.”

“That’s O.K., we don’t want the hatch opening slowly anyway. There’s a time delay on the emergency explosive bolts. We can use the sudden decompression to help throw us out into space.”

“How do you know so much about an old freighter like this one?”

“Let’s just say this isn’t the first time I needed a cargo door opened in a hurry and leave it at that. Get the beast started. I have no idea if this old rust bucket of a spacecraft is going to hold together much longer.”

Duane initiated the emergency charges and quickly joined Anaya in the crew cab of the borer. She raced up the engine while holding a firm foot on the brake. The large machine hadn’t stopped touching the floor when the gravity plating failed, but its wheels didn’t really have much of a hold on the deck either. Neither of them was sure her efforts were going to help much. She let go of the brake the instant the hatch exploded away. She had driven machines like this ever since she was big enough to reach the pedals. Until today, she had never felt one accelerate this fast with no gravity and the rush of air escaping the cargo hold.

The wheels had helped propel the Core Borer forward and slightly upward. The roof of the machine bumped the head of the hatch as they shot out into space. This put the machine in a gentle end over end summersault as it drifted away from the freighter. They rolled over just in time to see a ball of fire escape the gaping void that had been the bow of the ship only minutes before. As the borer flipped again, Duane and Anya could do nothing more than watch in awe as the rest of the freighter ripped apart in every direction. The shock wave of the exploding ship’s atmosphere and debris hit the borer with and propelled them even faster in the direction they had been floating.

The initial acceleration knocked the wind out of Duane. He was just recovering his breath when he realized Anaya was unconscious. He checked and she had a heart beat and was breathing regularly.  He poked around the control panel looking for communications and or navigation interfaces. Communication was limited to just a few hundred kilometers. That was great range on the surface of a planet or asteroid, but pitiful in the depths of space. Navigation relied solely on satellites. It seemed that they had only prolonged the inevitable.

Duane brooded in the silence as they drifted for the next couple of hours. He didn’t really believe he would die out here, though how he was going to get out of this eluded him. This was becoming all too common of an occurrence. The rickety old mine he was escorted to for the big gem strike on Mercury nearly collapsed. Several months before that he had nearly been trampled trying to herd emu birds he’d taken to Mars for a ranching start up venture there. Before that was the countless times Duane had been detained by customs officials while his questionable cargo was inspected.  Now he was drifting in space with no real prospects for rescue. For the first time, he let regret creep up to his conscious mind for the lifestyle he’d adopted since his family’s money had run out.

“Is it that bad?” Anaya asked pulling Duane out of his self-pitying meditation.

 “We have no way of telling where we are or where we’re going. Best I can tell is that this thing has maybe three days of oxygen, and unless someone flies close enough to scratch our asses, we can’t key up communication with anyone. So yes, I do think it’s that bad.”

“Well it could be worse.”

“And just how so?”

Anaya pointed at a large piece of the freighter’s hull as it slowly passed them by. Then she reached into the center console between their seats and pulled out a snack and calmly sat back to enjoy it.

“You’ve apparently come out of your coma delirious,” Duane observed. “Are you just going to happily sit there and wait to die of asphyxiation?”

“I would think that a con man like yourself would have thought a little beyond the borer’s radio. You have that lovely anklet broadcasting our location like a flashing light. Daddy will send help as soon as he finds out what happened.  He’ll try to contact me when I miss my check in call in ten minutes or so and he’ll see that the freighter is off of the tracking scope. That’s assuming no one noticed the explosion or that the crew that abandoned ship hasn’t contacted someone yet.”

“This thing has that kind of range?”

“It has enough range to be relayed to Mercury via the nearest planet or anything in space with a radio. It only has to send a small amount of data to show its location and the temperature so the signal is fast.”

“Temperature?”

“It senses temperature so daddy can be sure no one has pitched the device into space, assuming they found it buried in a shipment of ore. Daddy will know you must still be alive from your body heat reading.”

Duane almost relaxed too, but the ever-present pessimist in the back of his head was quick to realize a few things. First was that the crew had sealed off the remaining escape pods and had conveniently escaped just moments before the impact of a yacht that had no business being in the shipping lane. This meant that they wouldn’t be contacting rescue authorities since they were alerted to what was coming. Second was the fact that the collision happened just outside of the Earth control sphere, close enough for the escape pods to reach the scanned space, but far enough away to make a quick rescue unlikely. The third thing was what people stood to gain from his demise. That was most troubling. He had no one to trust and if he escaped this first attempt to stop him from reaching Pluto, how desperate would an unknown assassin who would destroy an entire interplanetary freighter become?

Anaya agreed that Duane may have a plausible theory, but she was able to point out other just as plausible scenarios. What had happened could have been a true accident and the crew may have forgotten about their passengers in the panic of escaping. Or, maybe they were part of an insurance scam and didn’t want witnesses. Her personal favorite was the suspicion that Duane wasn’t the target, but the Core Borer was. It was the main asset to a near failing private operation. Without its expected income while being leased to a job on Earth, her father would have to forfeit his operation for lack of tax money. Duane knew enough about the Corporate Mining Guild to concede the latter was just as likely. In fact, it was comforting to imagine that he may not be the target.

Within a few hours, a landing craft from a freighter on its way to Mars towed the Core Borer aboard and Duane was headed back in the right direction. The captain of the freighter (a ship in much better condition than the last) informed Duane that his friend, Willibow had arranged for the rescue and transport. This came with a modest withdrawal from Duane’s account of course. He might have balked at the steep price (ten thousand credits), if he had a choice, yet he was still alive which eased the sinking feeling that was getting worse. That price had been paid to also buy the silence of the captain and the crew members involved in the rescue. Hopefully, that would ensure a quiet journey to Mars.

It was an uneventful ride to Mars. Duane kept to himself in his small cabin. He only saw Anaya once at a meal break. They exchanged niceties and briefly agreed it was good to have survived the last ordeal, but she seemed preoccupied. This was most evident when she kept referring to him as “Duane”, rather than “Con Man” or something to that effect. He wanted to find out why she was so reserved, but decided to put that aside. He had nearly burned up the first week of the deadline. Not getting involved with something he needn’t concern himself with seemed to be a wise move.

The freighter docked at Mars Station Gamma and Duane departed alone. He kept an eye out for Anaya, but didn’t go out of his way to find her to say goodbye. The list of transports that Duane had printed out on the Fairchild was mostly useless now. He hadn’t planned to start from Mars and there were only eight transports from the list that would be stopping at Mars on their way to Saturn Station. All of those prospects weren’t due to arrive for at least two days. That gave him time to find other options.

There were nearly one hundred docking ports on Mars Station Gamma. Duane decided to start walking from port to port, checking on the destination manifest for each docked spacecraft. His hope was to find someone headed to Saturn that would take a cash-paying customer with no questions. Ten hours later, he had nearly seen every port without success. He was considering taking a shuttle to another station when he was surprised by who was waiting for him around the next corner.

“I thought you were never going to get here,” Anaya said greeting him with a cynical smile.

“I didn’t know you were waiting for me.”

“This is the only bus heading to Saturn, I figured it would be the first place you’d go. What’ve you been doing all afternoon?”

“I’ve been avoiding logging onto any of the networks. I’m convinced someone besides your father is trying to follow my progress. I figured I wouldn’t leave any tracks until it was necessary.”

“I reserved a seat for you under the name of Roger Scalawag. You can go pick up a ticket at the kiosk over there.”

“First of all, Scalawag isn’t all that much of a cover name, though I’m sure you’re pleased with yourself for coming up with it. Secondly, I didn’t agree to have you as an escort. Don’t you have a Core Borer to accompany back to Earth?”

“Daddy told me to try to sell it here on Mars. He said the job on Earth had been cancelled because the company that wanted to use it thought it had been destroyed. Daddy said that since everyone thought it was destroyed, he wanted it to stay that way and to sell it for whatever price I could get without questions or registration. I was supposed to go back to Mercury as soon as I sold the thing. Well, I did as he asked, but I probably sold it for a hell of a lot less than he thinks he’s going to get for it.”

“What are you up to?”

“I think my father’s in trouble because of this wager he has with you. I don’t intend to see him get hurt. I’ve bought us passage to Saturn, which leaves you a good little stash of credits to get us to Pluto from there. The bus will take just ten days to get to Saturn. You could get there well ahead of schedule. All I ask in return is that you let me come along and watch your back. Your health is my father’s success.”

A polite computer generated voice announced the first call for boarding passengers on the bus. Duane had wanted to be rid of his escort just hours before, but now he decided to welcome the helping hand Anaya was extending. He wasn’t sure if Willibow was being coerced or if he might be the one trying to eliminate him, but having Willibow’s daughter by his side couldn’t be that bad if he needed to ensure his help. He picked up his ticket and boarded the bus with his companion who had registered herself as Mrs. Scalawag.

The pair took seats together towards the rear of the bus. The tall backed seats made each row feel enclosed. This helped ease the riotous atmosphere created by the volume transport of people, which kept the cost of travel down. This bus was filled with its greater than usual share of migrant workers and their families headed to Saturn Station for a large expansion project there. 

Migrant workers often traveled in extended family packs from planet to planet. As their children became sired and born in the various municipalities, they achieved or maintained citizenship and working visa status for the entire family unit at the various locations. This ensured their ability to seek work wherever it may be available. The children and adults alike often treated the time in transit without work duties like a mini holiday in a park. Arriving at Saturn days ahead of schedule would come at a price to Duane’s sanity.

A few days into the trip the bus was silenced. Three passengers who had been keeping to their own in the middle of the bus rose and produced rifles they’d been allowed to smuggle aboard all too easily. They ordered everyone to their seats while the leader, a particularly desperate looking man, headed for the pilothouse. A child’s hover ball set in motion moments before the hijacking, tripped up the man rushing to get to the pilot. The pilot activated the pilothouse emergency escape cycle.  The hijacker managed to toss a grenade into the pilothouse before the hatch closed. The pilothouse separated from the bus and began to make its escape.  It didn’t get far before it was ripped apart by the explosion.

The ball of fire engulfed the now drifting bus and the concussion of the explosion knocked the hijackers to the floor. Five of the migrant workers, young men who looked to be the strong backs of the family, seized the opportunity and immediately turned the attack back on the hijackers. Two of the hijackers were dead in an instant, the other was knocked out cold and hog tied before most of the passengers on the bus realized what had happened. Duane had watched the quick efficiency the migrants demonstrated as they dispatched the threats to their family. He was glad he wasn’t on the receiving end of their attack and relieved to have the attack ended so quickly. He stood and led the rest of the passengers in applause for their saviors. As the accolades went on, Duane was already realizing that subduing the hijackers may have been the easy compared to the situation they were left to now.

Without the pilothouse there would be no way to control the engines and ensure the bus would reach Saturn without overshooting the planet. This was especially likely considering the explosion of the pilothouse. If they had been en route to one of the inner planets like Earth or Mars, just getting within a few hundred thousand kilometers would have been close enough to be detected by the elaborate tracking grid at those crowded planets where the space traffic is much more intense. Saturn Station relied mostly on onboard transponders for the location of approaching spacecraft and the transponder for the bus had just blown up with the pilothouse.

Duane wasn’t the only one aboard who realized the situation. Most of the people aboard had seen enough space flight to know its nuances and dangers. He and Anaya joined the rest of the passengers in a long debate about what to do. It wasn’t too surprising to Duane that the discussion often became tense considering the clashes of personalities who were trying to create possibilities out of an impossible situation. Just before the attack, the pilot had announced that the bus had reached cruising speed and was on track to arrive at Saturn Station on time. This left them with roughly two and a half days to decide how to get the attention of the station before they presumably drifted silently past. Anaya pulled Duane out of the conversation to their seats at the back of the bus and away from anyone listening in.

“What about Daddy’s little piece of jewelry around your ankle? Think he’ll be sending in the Calvary again?”

“He would if he knew I was in trouble. Thing is that the whole hijacking happened so quickly that we can’t assume the pilot managed a distress call before he was blown up.”

“I see your point. I don’t think planet hoppers like this one check in much in route. It could be more than twenty four hours before someone begins to even wonder where we’re at.”

“Sure, we were going over all of this over there. I’ve thought about it while they went on and there’s only one real option as I see it. I’ve got to get into a lifeboat and launch it in the wrong direction. Your father may not be able to tell we’re going to miss Saturn yet, but you can be damn sure he’s going to take notice of the signal is heading the wrong way.”

“I’d tell you to go for it, but I don’t know that he could do anything fast enough. Sending a freighter to our rescue in the busy space near Earth was one thing, out here it’s too wide open to just dial up help.”

Duane’s mind was made up despite Anaya’s reservations. He got up and briefed the passengers on what he planed to do.  He wanted to get in a lifeboat and launch himself in the direction perpendicular to their current course. Duane had imagined going in the reverse direction, but a rather clever migrant pointed out that the lifeboat propulsion would be no where near enough to send him in the opposite direction. It would only look like  Duane’s progress had only slowed at best. A perpendicular trajectory had the best possibility of attracting attention, but it would take him far out of the general shipping lane between Mars and Saturn. The only problem the passengers had with the plan was sending only one man out in the lifeboat. If there was a problem on board the bus, five of the remaining passengers would have nowhere to go. Duane asked for volunteers to go with him then, but Anaya was the only one willing to fly out into space with him. The others agreed to let the two try out their plan while they tried to come up with a better one, or better yet, be rescued by some other miracle.

It wasn’t long before Duane was drifting aimlessly through space with Anaya as his only accompaniment again. The lifeboat would have been very cramped quarters if six adults were forced to abandon ship in the craft. It was almost cozy with just the two of them. The bus quickly shrank out of sight against the background of open space. They had used up the entire escape fuel supply to break away and create a perpendicular trajectory from the bus. There was no way of telling if their plan was going to work. Duane’s anklet didn’t have any kind of display, readout, or even a flashing light. It was intended to sit in the middle of an ore shipment and be as hard to find as possible. There was nothing to do but wait.

This left Duane with enough spare time to realize that Anaya might be warming up to him. Not in a friendship way, but he thought she might not see him as a scoundrel any more. He knew it had something to do with her father’s order to sell the bore machine and return to Mercury without explanation. He tried several times to bring up the subject, and each time he kept his mouth shut. She had cut him down too many times before in the short time he’d known her. He didn’t want to spend who knows how long swapping quibbles. He was grateful when it was Anaya who broke the ice.

“I didn’t mean it personally when I said my father may be in trouble because of your bet. Well, maybe then I suspected you might have something to do with it, but now I don’t. Still, I do believe the deal you two struck has attracted some attention.”

“You’re not a closet conspiracy theorist are you? I agree there was something fishy about the yacht crashing into the freighter, but are you trying to tell me the hijackers were government or corporate agents?”

“Hijacking a bus full of migrant workers on the way to an outer planet is too stupid of an idea, even for stupid criminals. Those tailings who were overpowered too quickly. I think someone promised them something worth their effort.”

Duane put his face in his hands. He’d considered all of the above of course. Hearing it from the eternal skeptic Anaya meant it must be true. His life of wheeling and dealing would come to one climatic end at this rate. He looked up and found Anaya’s eyes and stared straight into them.

“That’s it. If we get out of this alive, I’m quitting this life. No more scamming and no more dealing.”

“That’s easy to declare with the big windfall the Pluto Station thing is going to net you.”

“No Anaya, you don’t understand. We’re not going to make it to Pluto. We have three weeks of provisions on this lifeboat and you can bet your bottom dollar that no one’s going to pick us up until it’s impossible to make the deadline. But that doesn’t matter anyway. I’m not so sure if I’d want the life that my inheritance would get me. I just want to live a normal life and not have to be scheming for my next plate of food.”

Anaya stared back. He was serious and she could plainly see it.

“Don’t give up on your dream that quickly, con man. I essentially sold my daddy’s farm to bet on you. I’ve decided that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life inside whatever rock daddy’s digging into at the moment. You’re my ticket out of the mines and I’m not going to give up on you as easy as you want to give up on yourself.”

Duane opened his mouth to protest, but a shadow engulfed the lifeboat at that moment. He turned to see an overwhelming warship blocking out the sun. It didn’t take long to recognize that it was a Reoublic of Sol Armed Forces vessel. It closed in on them so quickly that there was a panicked moment when both thought they were going to get run over without being seen. The approaching ship came along side of the lifeboat and matched its speed and trajectory. Then a cargo bay door opened and a grappling arm extended and pulled the dwarfed escape craft inside.

To Duane’s surprise only one officer was there to greet them without so much as a robot sentry for backup. He had expected to be greeted with a platoon of drawn rifles ready to escort them to the brig. Instead, the officer extended a hand as Duane and Anaya stepped out of the lifeboat.

“Welcome aboard the R.S.S.S. Talymyde. Please step this way.”

The bewildered castaways were escorted into a control room overlooking the cargo bay. They watched as the grappling arm returned the lifeboat back into space. It held the craft there a moment, then it gave the inflatable tube a hard violent shake that ripped the craft and deflated the occupant compartment. Then the lifeboat was released and left to drift.

“We’ll be back for that later. When you see your father, tell him our debt is repaid. In the meantime, you stay right here in this compartment until we reach the Pharos Asteroid Mine. Once we’re there, a cargo box will be picked up and deposited on the floor where you got out of the lifeboat. Get inside and keep quiet. Don’t ask any questions and don’t try to reopen the box. The box will be transfered to the mins’s warehouse.  You will be let out after my ship has departed and not a moment before then. Are we clear?”

“Is someone taking care of the drifting bus?”

“Another ship has been dispatched from Saturn Station. I suggest you not try to contact any of the passengers, or anyone else for that matter, Mr. Rodgers. Your name is radioactive on the government channels. You would do well to lay low for a while. I’ve stuck my neck way out for this young lady’s father. I’ll be pissed off if I find out you got yourself picked up by the Interplanetary Investigations Unit right after I’ve arranged for you to get away.”

“What does the IIU want with me?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care. No one else on this ship knows you’re here and that’s the way it had better stay, am I clear?”

Both nodded wordlessly and the satisfied man left without further explanation. Anaya had read his gold plated nametag, which labeled the officer “Captain Elders”. She assumed that would be Josh Elders, an old Space Force friend from the conscription days of her father’s youth. He had told her of a time when Elders was about to be drummed out of the Force for disobeying orders. Her father had no intention of making the military a career and he took the brunt of the blame to let his friend stay in the Force. Apparently he had done well enough for himself since then.

Anaya whispered the story her father had told her to Duane while they waited away the hours before reaching Pharos. Their only clue they had arrived came when the cargo bay door opened to the broadside view of the docking facilities. Theirs was not the only cargo hold on the Talymyde, which now resembled a multi-legged crab as it extended twenty-five grappling arms that busily went about the business of exchanging a multitude of supplies. The arm from their cargo bay extended and returned with a much smaller cargo box than either had imagined.

They dutifully went to it and opened the lid. They would have to lay down inside and hold one another quite closely. Duane looked up after surveying their accommodations and was met by a piercing look from Anaya.

“They sure as hell didn’t give us much room,” she observed in an irked manner.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be a perfect gentleman,” he responded as he climbed in and rolled on his side.

Anaya stood by while Duane made as much room for her as he could manage. It was a tighter fit then either had guessed. Duane reached up and pulled the lid down. The inside was completely dark and noiseless with the exception of their restrained breathing and the whir of a small fan mercifully circulating air near their faces.

Despite the fact that they still appeared to be in danger, and despite the fact that Duane was fighting a sever panic attack over the claustrophobia he was now feeling, he couldn’t help noticing how good it felt to be pressed up against his coffin mate. He was glad it was pitch black inside as his face flushed red while he felt the natural reaction in his pants. He hoped she hadn’t noticed.

“I’m flattered, but I don’t think now is the time to get so familiar,” she said from so close he could feel the warm sweet air of her voice all over his face.

“Sorry, this is the one part of being male I wish we had more control over at times. I assure you that I wouldn’t…..”

Duane was blissfully interrupted by the soft advance of her lips on his. Neither of them noticed the motion of their container as it was lifted from the cargo bay and placed amongst the masses of other cargo containers in the Pharos warehouse. They remained there for an hour before realizing they could probably get out of their self-imposed coffin. It was a silent blessing that there was no room to do anything but kiss, both would have been far to lost in each other if they could act further on the passion rushing through their bodies.  Duane opened the container slowly and examined the surroundings.

The warehouse was large enough to hold thousands upon thousands of cargo containers like the one Duane and Anaya crawled out of. The size of the warehouse allowed them to crawl out unnoticed by the dock crew who busily worked at the other end. This saved them the embarrassment of being observed as they gathered themselves. The ultra low gravity on the asteroid was minimally augmented by gravity plating. Add this to their recent passioned discovery of each other and it literally felt as though they were both walking on clouds as they strolled out of the warehouse and into the asteroid’s main promenade where hundreds of people diluted their presence.

Despite the relatively large population on the asteroid, the pair was careful to not attract attention. Finding transport to Saturn seemed impossible without accessing the networks, which would alert everyone looking for Duane to his presence.  Unlike the station at Mars, the docking bays on the asteroid were scattered all over the surface of the rock. Searching them one at a time would take days. The feeling of despair was washing over Duane again as the impossible situations just seemed to build on his latest adventure. He inwardly longed to be crammed back inside the cargo container with Anaya again.

“Any ideas, con man?” Anaya playfully asked. The words were used with affection now and Duane welcomed the playfulness of the new nickname he now gladly accepted.

“You’re the miner and this is a mining rock. I’m counting on you for ideas.”

The pair slowly and aimlessly wandered with the pedestrians. Both were silent while they conjured up ideas, a distracting task when it felt that everyone was watching them. Then Anaya noticed a Mining Guild kiosk. This was the break they needed. She led Duane there and started accessing the database.

“I thought it was too dangerous for us to access the networks.”

“The Guild provides these kiosks on all of the bigger rocks to attract new members. It has an extensive employment guide and lists of activities in the kiosk’s sector. It’s meant to be used without a personal log-on ID.”

Duane started out by watching over Anaya’s shoulder, but she appeared to anticipate every page as they appeared and he got no more than a glance at each.  He turned and watched the people pass by. No one seemed to notice them more than they noticed the rest of the crowd. He welcomed feeling more anonymous. Anaya made a frustrated grunt. Duane spied in on her progress. She was still furiously flipping through pages of information, but her frustration was palatable. He feared this was becoming a dead end and the clock was ticking. Then an odd bird in the crowd came into view.

The man wore knee height lace up boots, faded denim trousers, a flight jacket that appeared to be real leather and an old rocket-era helmet liner on his head like a hat, toping off the ensemble. Duane had met more than a few pilots who donned similar apparel. The man was certain to own an old surplus troop carrier with final generation propellant rockets that were simple and cheap to operate, but slower than anything running between the planets these days. His walk was carefree and a little playful as he browsed the curio shops lining the walls of the promenade.  When Duane observed the man deftly pocket a fresh orange from a fruit stand while arguing with the merchant about the prices, he knew he’d found a prospect. He left Anaya to her fruitless task and approached his quarry. A man of his occupation would respond best to the direct approach.

“Is your ship fueled and ready to go?”

“Depends on where you want to go to, who the hell you are, and most importantly, how many credits you’re prepared to part with.”

“Saturn, you know I can’t say who, and five thousand.”

“Can’t or won’t tell usually doubles my rate, let’s say seven fifty and I can be ready to go the instant you are.”

“Fine, let me go get my friend and we’ll be on our way.”

The pilot grabbed his arm. “You didn’t mention a friend and I was quoting a per-person cost of transport, and that’s assuming there’s not much cargo going with you.”

Duane knew that if he made it to Saturn, he could hitch a ride to Pluto on the supply ship for next to nothing. He figured he could use all of his remaining credits to book passage to Saturn, so he could afford this man’s price easily. But this was business and despite his earlier proclamations, Duane would always be a hawker at heart. “We have no cargo, just the clothes on our backs. Ten thousand credits transferred up front. The transfer of the credits will be the tricky part.”

“Tricky money transfers are what keeps a rocket jockey like me in business. Where’s your friend?”

Duane turned towards the kiosk. He stopped himself from pointing out Anaya who was now frantically beating and kicking the kiosk in frustration. “Oh, uh, she’s around. Where can we meet you?”

“Gate 29 in the South Terminal.”

“Is there a public Network access at the Gate?”

“No, but my ship is connected.”

“Is the access traceable?”

The pilot looked offended. “I wouldn’t be able to make my living if I couldn’t get paid without The Man looking over my shoulder all of the time.”

“Perfect. Go back to the grouchy grocer over there and get us some food and you can get another fifty credits at the transfer. Only this time, pay for the food so you don’t get busted by the security woman who’s shopping over there right now.”

The pilot gave Duane a measured look and then turned to the fruit stand. A plainly dressed woman was gently squeezing an avocado with her right hand. She carefully added the fruit to her basket while never letting the left hand leave the vicinity of her hip. He’d have never noticed this if Duane hadn’t pointed her out. He turned and removed the orange from his pocket. “Better not have this on me when I go back, that woman looks like she’s begging for an excuse to use whatever she’s got under her cape.”

Duane accepted the orange gratefully. He hadn’t eaten since Mars Station. It was peeled and half-eaten before he joined Anaya who had given up on the kiosk and was just beginning to scan the crowd to figure out where he’d gone. She was about to start asking where he’d been when he held out the orange half. She looked at the fruit as if he was showing her a diamond ring.

“I haven’t had a fresh piece of fruit in two years!” She took it gently from him and bit in. The way she thoroughly savored the delight made Duane regret he had eaten the first half. Anaya was absolutely radiant when she was this satisfied. She slowly delighted in every bite before licking her finger’s clean. Duane filled her in on his arrangements while she ate.

“You’ve done good con man. I was getting a fat goose egg with the mining guild booth. I couldn’t access anything useful without logging on with a real identity, and I usually know some tricky ways around that kind of system. Don’t you think ten thousand is just a little much for a quick hop to Saturn Station?”

“It’s a bargain considering how much these Rocket Jockeys usually charge for no questions asked service. I hope our pilot is better at navigating the Network than he is at bargaining.”

The flight on the Rocket was rougher than even the public bus had been, but in all other ways it was uneventful. Saturn Station’s principal business was for departures and arrivals. Other stations in orbit around Saturn were for habitat, commerce, manufacturing and research. The original station operator at Saturn had foolishly allowed his exclusive rights to the system lapse in the first year. That was the same year Mars had won its independence. The habitants of the then three stations had used the precedence of the Martian break from the now defunct United Nations to set up their own charter for self-governance. The United Stations of Saturn were now twenty-three stations strong, with full colonization of the moon, Titan, imminent.

The contract departures to Pluto for the researchers based on Duane’s Station had always been based from the same docking port at Saturn and Duane led Anaya strait there. Duane was surprised to find a small crowd of the researchers gathered there. He recognized the head of the group from the many holophone conversations they had shared about the station’s condition over the years. The man likewise recognized Duane and immediately crossed the floor and met him as he and Anaya approached.

“I might have figured you would have something to do with this,” Dr. Abrams barked as he looked to be ready for a fight, or at least as much as a wiry scientist can look ready for trouble.

“Whoa, Ben! Tell me what I’m supposed to have a part in before we start fighting. I’d hate for my friend here to see me get the daylights beat out of me without my knowing why.” Duane’s admission to defeat disarmed the attack as intended. Ben Abrams was a fit man, but not a likely match for Duane.

“Our research grant was cancelled two days ago without explanation. We had that long to gather our gear and vacate your station. We landed here and who’s the first person I meet but you. You tell me why I shouldn’t be suspicious.”

Over Dr. Abram’s shoulder Duane saw an image of himself on a newscast. The caption read “Missing and presumed Dead.” Duane pointed in that direction. A picture truly told a thousand words. Dr. Abrams looked every bit as confused as he should.

 “Just what the hell’s going on here Rodgers? Why does the media think you’re dead?”

“Oh, I couldn’t begin to tell you the half of it, Doctor. Try keying up the station in a couple of weeks. Hopefully I’ll have everything squared away and you can return if you like. In the mean time, unless you want to spend a few days answering questions from some Interplanetary Investigations Unit lackey, I wouldn’t mention that you saw me to anyone.”

Just the mere mention of the IIU clearly put fear in Dr. Abrams. Duane felt confident he wouldn’t turn them in. The next new problem now was how to get to Pluto without that regular run. He led Anaya away from the group. “When your father was setting me up with traveling money, I noticed a lot of zeros behind the number he pays you. Is all of that going into the bank and can we use it?”

“I get mostly the zeros and not the numbers in front of them.  You see, on Mercury, there isn’t a personal income tax on employees. That’s why I’m not a partner. He’s paid me well in the good years, but since the economy went bust, daddy’s been using my “income” as a way to avoid the profit taxes. If you look at my bank account, you’re eyes might pop out of your head, but I’m afraid there’s outstanding transfers against the balance that will bust the account before long.” Anaya had thought telling this to Duane would have deflated whatever scheme he was concocting. To her surprise, he didn’t seem phased and was even beginning to beam. “I’m afraid I haven’t known you long enough to know if I should be scared by your expression right now. What is going on in your head, con man?”

Grady O’Brian sulked in a richly appointed empty show room. He’d been through recessions before, but the current economic slump was the deepest he’d ever seen in all of his years of selling luxury interplanetary yachts. What made this current recession unlike all others was the mass migration of settlers heading for New Terra in the Frontier. It seemed that all of the usual entrepreneurs who usually invent ways out of economic hard times had fled to the new, more fertile markets New Terra offered.  Then opportunity strolled in. The sugar mama was dressed ten years younger than her age, flaunting the well formed body sculpted by what was probably hours a day in the gym. Her boy toy was dressed every bit like the parasite he was. It’d been a long time since Grady had seen a couple like this. Most of the wealthy remaining in the home solar system had to deeply cut out the fat of their spending, which meant jettisoning their sex companions. This woman was either quite well off, or extremely gullible. Either suited Grady just fine.

“Welcome to Saturn’s only source of the finest personal transportation available. My name is Grady, how may I help you.”

“Well, we’re here to by a ship of course. Do you have any in stock or is this just a fancy storefront?” the leech sniped. His woman was most decidedly displeased. She merely sneered at the man and he turned away. 

For a moment, Grady thought he might have recognized the man, but the association eluded him. He’d have to do a quick check of the gossip networks this evening while he celebrated closing this one. That wasn’t going to happen unless he smoothed over the sugar mama quickly.

“I’m the only dealership in the outer planets with more than three ships in my inventory, and I’m sure a sharp young lady like yourself wouldn’t have come here without knowing that first. After all, time is money.”

“Yes, time I have, and money too for that matter, but I am quite short on patience.  I need to get back to Earth and there isn’t anything short of a horrific passenger sardine can going that way for days. Fresh sun ripened grapes are in too short of supply out here to bear the indignity of staying any longer.  I need your fastest boat and I’ll be on my way thank you.”

Grady couldn’t believe his ears. He hoped he wasn’t blushing with the excitement he felt. “As you wish, ma’am. Come with me to my network station over here and simply key in your identity codes. I’ll take care of all the rest.”

The leech had turned and smiled at his sugar mama. She rolled her eyes and he went back to pretending to look at the yachts moored outside within view of the showroom. Grady afforded himself a silent chuckle as he followed his quarry. She’d keyed in her information and demanded a glass of chardonnay while she had to wait for finalizing the details. Grady immediately set to business. He was disappointed to see this pretentious brat was actually worth so little. This spoiled daughter of a two-bit mining baron on Mercury was obviously suffering from delusions of grandeur. He’d hoped to unload the biggest dead weight in his inventory, but she could just barely afford a good mid-class yacht. There was no way she was going to be staffing the boat. She’d have to fly fully automated. That meant no kickback from the crew agencies, which would cut into his profit on this one. Still, this would be his first sale in over a year and would keep him out of the auction halls for a few more months anyway. No point in looking a gift horse in the mouth. Then he had a flash of inspiration.

“Pardon me, Ms. Banks, will you be keeping your purchase once you get to Earth?” As expected, the woman was obviously annoyed at the intrusion to her measured sipping of the wine she’d nearly finished.

“Why Mr. O’Brian, do you plan on buying it back when I arrive?”

“No ma’am. I only ask because I could set you up with a Jumbo Loan on one of my very fast, and very comfortable Panther Class ships that have an excellent resale value on Earth these days. They’re very convenient for attaching to a Frontier Ship and have much better accommodations than booking a separate suite on the crowded starships. With a Jumbo loan, you could get to Earth, resale the yacht with almost no depreciation, and pay the balance of the balloon payment for less than a 1st class accommodation on one of those, how did you put it?, sardine cans going to Earth right now.”

Grady worried for a microsecond that he’d just busted the deal. The woman shot a glare at her boy toy who was looking awfully smug at the moment.

“You see Sweet-tums, I told you we could do this without having to touch your account. Your daddy won’t hardly notice what you’ve done until several days after we’re on Plu,,,otia Island,,, you know,,,, on Earth I mean.”

A little alert went off in the back of Grady’s mind, but his need to hold this sale and even pick up the kickback from the lender made him push his instincts aside. He called up a Panther ship from the yard. Time would be critical to save this sale.

“Yes you smug little boy, you did tell me about this, but you forget what I told you already! I feel like I’m dealing with a child sometimes,” she fired back at her companion. “I’m not in the business of selling boats. Do you really expect me to access a classified network and prostitute myself like some common businesswoman?”

Grady could have been insulted, but he was too busy figuring the commission he’d get with his next suggestion. “Pardon me Ms. Banks, I can contact a friend of mine on Earth who consigns sales like this. You can dock where ever you want and he could arrange to resale the yacht and take care of the transfers without your having to lift even a pinky in the process.”

The glow of Saturn below was blocked out as a Panther Class yacht silently glided in front of the showroom’s expansive view port. There was a hiss of air as the airlock between the station and the yacht automatically sealed and the doors between the two slid open.

Grady could almost see the wheels turning in the woman’s head as she mulled over his proposition. She looked over to her companion who silently gestured for her to complete the deal. She turned to Grady and said, “O.K. Mr. O’Brien, you have a sale. Finish up the details and release the ship as soon as you can.”

“A very wise decision, Ms. Banks. You’re new ship is fully automated. Simply announce your name and destination when you board and the ship will take you there. I’ll have the details done by the time you’ve walked through the airlock and close the door behind you. Congratulations on your purchase. The only detail I need to know is if you’ll be wanting voice command privileges for your companion?”

Anaya took a long moment finishing the last of the Chardonnay as if considering the request. She sighed as if she’d been asked to clean a toilet and said, “I suppose, if I must.”

Duane and Anaya entered the ship and immediately commanded it to set a course for Pluto Station at its best possible speed.  Grady O’Brian was too busy closing his shop early for a celebratory trip to the nearest bar to notice his recent sale disappear in the wrong direction. He left so quickly he was a full five minutes ahead of the Interplanetary Investigations Unit strike squad that had to break into the dealership; accidentally destroying Grady’s network access terminal and any quick hope of tracking where his recent sale had gone.

Onboard the yacht, Anaya wasted no time removing her floaters that had forced her to walk on tiptoes for what seemed an eternity. Duane left her at the vestibule and ran off to the bridge. Anaya joined him moments later where the guts of the console had already been opened up and it’s contents strewn out like the abdomen of an accident victim.  “What the hell are you doing to my ship?”

Without looking up, Duane dismissively answered, “I’m trying to disable the tracking transponder before the IIU pays a visit to our friendly dealer’s shop.”

“Why? Do you think they’re so stupid as to not know where we’re going?”

“Oh, sure, of course they do, but we don’t want to make it too easy to sling a missile our way.”

“Duane honey, the IIU hasn’t been armed since they bungled the Martian Revolution.”

Duane only laughed. Anaya had obviously been raised around the inner planets. The Interplanetary Investigations Unit was the only part of the United Nations still alive after the Republic of Sol had been formed. Oversight of their dealings with colonists beyond Saturn was forgotten. Dismissively he told her, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing here.” He yanked hard on a wiring harness extending from inside the control panel to a small metal box he’d removed. A red light began to flash on the panel and an alert tone beeped as the entire ship’s power went out and the bridge went dark.

Duane missed the sudden fear Anaya felt while their eyes adjusted to the dark. Just as they could focus on each other in the dim starlight, the bridge began to brighten again. There was a moment of hope before each realized the new light was coming from outside the view ports. The plume of a solid fuel missile was unmistakable as it barely missed the bow of the yacht and exploded harmlessly half a kilometer away.

“I don’t know if I should kiss you or pound you right now,” Anaya managed to shakily voice.

“Well then I vote for the former. It’s obvious that if the ship hadn’t shut down and altered its acceleration, that missile would have been right on target.”

“Yea, but now what?”

“We need to activate auxiliary power somehow,” Duane observed, and on command, the voice activated computer powered up the backup systems.

“Shall I resume our original course?” a computer-generated woman’s voice queried. For their part, Duane and Anaya shot each other an amazed glance. Duane was the first to recover from the unexpected ease they’d literally dodged their latest bullet.

“Resume our course for Pluto Station; however pause when we’ve approached to within 150 kilometers from the station. Wait there until the station has orbited to the far side of Pluto and then move to orbit the planet opposite of the station,” Duane instructed the computer.

“I take it that your station’s tracking system has a 150 kilometer range,” Anya observed.

“It was 100 last I knew. I’m hoping the extra 50 kilometers avoids surprises for us.”

Anaya moved towards Duane informing him, “Well, I think you’ve earned this,” as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him in.  Both would agree later that the ten day final leg of their journey was far too short.

The yacht entered orbit as planned without so much as a peep from the station. It was tempting to assume the station was abandoned, but logic dictated that the IIU probably had a security force waiting for Duane. His plan for getting on the station was dangerous of course, but after hours of debate, neither he nor Anaya could think of an alternative.

Duane quietly suited up in decompression gear while Anaya sat nearby. She wanted to say so much that the words were too choked to come out. She gave him a final, tender kiss before he put the helmet on and entered the airlock. In addition to the maneuvering pack he wore with the decom gear, he carried the pack Anaya had taken off of another suit.

Duane gently pushed his way out of the airlock. He hung out in space just beyond the yacht.  He engaged the first pack to slow his orbit around the planet as the ship he’d just left silently sped away. It would now be an hour’s wait while his station caught up to him. Though he desperately wanted to, he dared not make radio contact with Anaya until he’d managed to do what he came to accomplish now.

In his youngest years, Duane had spent hours cuddled up on a downward view port aboard his family station. He’d simply stare blankly at Pluto below as the icy landscape passed. As he now hung above the planet in nothing more than a decompression suit, the experience was entirely different. Before, with all of the station’s bulk surrounding his body, he had never felt so small. Now he floated in the vacuum without the reassuring hum of the station’s environmental equipment to constantly keep him company. The isolation was much more intense than he’d imagined it would be.

Duane and Anaya had planed his deceleration maneuver as carefully as possible, but that did little to ease the knowledge that in the end, he could end up several kilometers off target, or that a thruster not working at 100 percent when he braked, may have him perpetually orbiting ahead of the station instead of waiting for the station to slowly catch up to him. To calm his nerves, Duane started looking for the surface features on Pluto he’d memorized as a child. At first everything seemed alien. He hadn’t reached into that part of his mind for years. Then he saw what he’d thought of as the Mickey Mouse landmark where a large crater impact was topped with two smaller ones in a proportion resembling the ancient symbol. With that recognition, the rest of the landscape became more and more familiar.

The distraction worked and the minutes passed quicker then Duane realized. He caught the shadow of his station crossing the landscape out of the corner of his eye. He immediately turned to see the station steadily coming his way. He couldn’t have been in better alignment but it was coming on faster than seemed safe. Duane hadn’t been aware he was capable of waiting until the last moment to use his pack thruster to speed his orbit to match the station’s approach as best as he could. Even at full thrusters however, the station rushed up on him and he made contact with the leading edge and they connected hard.

While Duane gasped for air after the impact, he had to scramble to move away from the view port he’d landed on. As control of his breathing returned, he carefully crawled his way over the top of the module he was on and looked down the length of the station towards the main docking area. His heart immediately sank when he could plainly see Anaya’s new yacht moored to one of the docking bays, flanked by two black ships unmistakably operated by the Interplanetary Investigation Unit. They had Anaya.  He hadn’t expected this last part of his journey to go without a hitch, but he certainly hadn’t thought they’d have commandeered the yacht so soon.

If the IIU had found the yacht so soon, Duane had to assume they’d been clever enough to find his decom gear missing from it’s place. He looked long and hard at the yacht that was too far away to see much of the details. It took a moment to recognize the faint image of small figures moving about the outside hull of the ship, presumably searching for him. This gave Duane hope that they hadn’t guessed his crazy move to board the station solo, at least not yet. He’d have to get aboard soon, before the search did expand to the station’s entire exterior.

It was obvious he wouldn’t be going in through a service hatch at the docking bays. The rest of the airlock hatches been designed to open from the inside. Duane racked his brain remembering all he could about the station, but a way in without being noticed seemed impossible. Then he remembered the bottom-side view port he’d spent so much time on when his was a kid. He had always needed to sneak his way to that portion of the station because it was one of the early modules and had fewer safeguards built into it. In fact, it was so old now that it was most likely decompressed to avoid a constant pressure stress on the module’s hull. Better yet, the large round view port the younger Duane had spent hours laying on had hand screw latching bolts because it doubled as a loading port in the early days of the station.

Without maintenance boots on, the only thing holding Duane to the station was the minor gravity attraction from the floor plating inside. The effect of the plating was localized, so being two or three meters above it meant a weak attraction at best, leaving
Duane the chore of walking lightly. If one of his steps was too strong, he’d send himself drifting away from the station with too little fuel in his suit to boost him back to it. The way to the old module was slow and he was concentrating hard on his footing. He didn’t notice that nearly an hour had passed before he reached the view port.

He immediately began the task of loosening the hand screws around the port. After loosening half of the screws, there was a panicked moment when he could hear the rush of air escaping through the seal. He feared that the module may not have been sealed off. The escaping atmosphere would have then triggered an alarm and he’d have an IIU welcoming committee by the time he’d finished opening the hatch. The hiss he’d heard however subsided quickly, probably air that had slowly bled into the module from the airlock of what must have been years since the module’s last use. Duane finished loosening the screws and yanked on the hatch. His first attempt didn’t seem to budge the mechanism. He pulled harder and ice built up around the hinge snapped.

The hatch flew open and Duane was caught going with it. The hatch jolted to a stop when it reached its fully open position and he barely managed to hang on. He crawled up the glass hatch’s edge and onto the module’s floor. Pulling the hatch closed again was easier than opening it. A tone began beeping in his helmet, indicating his air was running out as he retightened the screws. There were more emergency decompression suits in a nearby locker, but no atmosphere to change suits. He had to quickly make his way to the airlock and hope nobody was monitoring its use. He removed his helmet when the airlock was pressurized. He opened the door into the next part of the station and was relieved to not find a welcoming committee waiting for him there.

Nearby was a network access terminal and Duane wasted no time logging on and establishing his presence. He knew this would no doubt bring his visitors straight to him, spoiling any chance of rescueing Anaya through the element of surprise. What he had decided was that he could not risk making all of this way without doing what he’d come here for. The moment he touched the screen a message read, “Sorry Mr. Rodgers, the network is offline. Please come to the main deck so we can finish our business here without anyone getting hurt.” There was the reflection of movement on the network display screen and Duane turned to see two very large men dressed in typical black IIU uniforms coming up the passage fast ready to escort him to where he was headed.

Duane was escorted to the main deck where two agents stood by Anaya. Standing apart from the others was a woman who was obviously in charge. She had her back to him as he was hurried into the control room. Without turning, the woman quietly announced, “Leave us.”  The agents hesitated for a barely perceptive moment before exiting the room. The woman didn’t turn around and continued to look as if she was studying something on the computer screen. “You have been one tough man to stop Mr. Rodgers, but the chase is over.”

“May I ask then, who are you and why have you gone to such extraordinary lengths to stop me from retaining what is rightfully mine?” The woman turned to face him. He instantly wished she had remained facing away. It was hard to counter her cold measured stare. He instantly regretted asking his question.

“You may NOT ask, Mr. Rodgers. In fact, you may do NOTHING except wait. We have less than seventeen hours and thirty four minutes remaining before your ownership of this station expires.”

Duane was debating if he could at least ask to sit when the door to the room opened and another agent entered in a rush holding out a scanner.

“I trust you have an urgent reason for this intrusion Agent Barnes.”

The man had been too busy pointing the scanner in all directions to look her way but immediately snapped to attention at her query, “Yes Commander, of course Sir. Pardon the interruption, but we have detected a signal emanating from this room.”

“What kind of signal?”

“Sorry Sir, that was what I was trying to determine.”

“Then carry on.”

The agent wasted no time turning his attention back to the scanner and it was only a moment before he went to Duane and he pointed the device at his ankle, which made the scanner alarm sound. “It appears to be a standard cargo tracking data link to the networks.”

The Commander glared at Duane and gestured for him to lift his pant leg. Duane complied and revealed the anklet. He had become so accustomed to it that he’d forgotten it was there, even while the agent had been scanning the room. The Commander said nothing and quickly turned back to the network terminal and began to frantically key in commands as quickly as Duane and Anaya had ever seen a human manage. The tension in the room thickened as the Commander grumbled in frustration. Then she began to yell, “bastards!” at each turn of the display. The IIU agent looked like he might try to slink out of the room unnoticed when the Commander’s shoulders slumped as she ended her network connection and the display went dark.

She turned and somewhat dejectedly told the agent, “Assemble the squad. I’m afraid we’ve been forced into our exit plan. Tell the squad to put their affairs into order immediately and that we will depart for the Frontier within the hour.” The agent gratefully left the room as quickly as he could. The commander turned her attention to Duane, “Well, you’ve won, Mr. Rodgers, congratulations, the station will remain yours. Your tracking signal has confirmed your presence on the station and Ms. Bank’s father has so thoughtfully seen to it that the entire Solar System knows of your success.”

“Forgive me for being paranoid, but I don’t believe you are just going to leave here just like that. You’ve tried to kill me too many times to just walk away like this.”

“I assure you Mr. Rodgers, killing you right now would be quite satisfying. I’ve been planning this operation for quite some time and you have single-handedly insured its failure. I pulled every string, cashed in every favor, and persuaded all of the right United Nations bureaucrats to turn all security functions of the Frontier Express Lines over to my squad if I was successful in getting UN ownership of this station. You appear to have a notion, but no true idea of what a profound change the Frontier Express will have on humanities affairs beyond our solar system. You’ve only considered what the project will mean to the expansion of this worthless outpost.”

“Call my station worthless, but you’ve worked hard to keep it from me. It appears to have some value.”

“Don’t get too comfortable like your grandfather before you, Mr. Rodgers. The usefulness of this station will be a brief footnote in history just like it was back in the original exploration days. The known galaxy may be a place crowded with thousands of star faring species all trying to assert their dominance over their territories, but humans are about to make a quantum leap forward. The jump motor will give humanity the ability to travel from one star system to another in a matter of hours rather than weeks unlike all other known means of transportation.”

Duane understood the implications. If humanity were to possess the fastest means of commerce, our race would control trade in the Frontier. The Commander was right; he had been too wrapped up in his quest to retain ownership of the station to think outside that box. It was clear why this IIU Commander had worked so hard to gain control of security of the Frontier Express. The IIU was quickly becoming an irrelevant force, but security over the Frontier’s commerce presented limitless opportunities.

The Commander could read Duane’s understanding. “So you see, Mr. Rodgers, I could kill you and flee, but right now I’m going out to the Frontier a failure, not a fugitive. I still have hope of taking advantage of what I know about what mankind is about to bring on to our part of the galaxy. I hope to exploit  whatever new Frontier order that comes from it. Besides, if there’s one thing you’ve proved over the past two months, it’s that you could be a big part of what’s coming. I think you may find yourself in way over your head. When you do, you can turn to me.”

“Forgive me for being so bold Commander as to say I hope to never need your kind of help.” The Commander smiled for the first time. Duane longed for the cold glare over the Commander’s chilling smile.

“Nobody wants my kind of help, but eventually, they all need it.”

Comments»

1. Stephen Brandon - June 12, 2016

What a pain in the ankle. Interesting play on who knows who! Can’t wait to read the next story!!!


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