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Free Space

Written by Carrie Vaughn
Illustrated by Laura Givens


"Control, what does this look like to you?"

Hart moved closer to the diagnostic monitor to be sure her helmet camera picked up the details on the display.

The reply from Control sounded over her suit comm. Drexler's even voice said, "Explain."

She matched his level of calm. "Those radiation levels. They're too high."

"Those are readings from the storage units, correct?"


She didn't want to deal with this, another malfunction for Control to add to the maintenance schedule and then drag its feet over. This wasn't even her shift. She was covering for Matson, who had come down sick with the flu that seemed to have struck half of Covenant Station's residents. Control had promised to bring in more crew to take up the slack and get the station back on schedule. In the meantime, the rest of the techs worked double shifts. She resisted a futile effort to rub a hand on her face.

The station's refit was six months behind schedule. After twenty years of spinning empty in the space above Mars, another six months wouldn't have made much difference. But settlers had already moved into the living quarters, and many of the systems were still running on temporary stop-gaps. Quietly, slowly, Control was bringing the permanent systems on-line. Problems kept cropping up.

Drexler, Control's Chief, said, "The readings are noted. Finish your job assignment and come inside."

She was supposed to be certifying the cooling system on the station's fourth sector arm, which contained empty storage units awaiting supply deliveries. She couldn't do that, given these readings. The cooling system looked fine, every diagnostic she ran on it came up negative, which meant the excess radiation on the monitor didn't indicate a failure in the cooling system--it had to be coming from somewhere other than the usual background radiation. This had implications Control couldn't ignore. These levels were way above maximum standards for a residential station.

She attacked the problem one piece at a time, scanning part by part rather than the whole system. Radiation levels on the hull were normal. The cooling system itself was normal, although dealing with the spike in this sector was taxing it. The source of the radiation spike then was inside the storage units.

The title-transfer survey said these units were empty. When the Trade Guild abandoned the station after moving its operations to a more modern facility, it was supposed to have cleaned everything out, but they might have left something behind--radioactive waste, depleted plasma cores. When Covenant Control bought the station and the charter to start an independent trading colony, it might not have been the wiser. Now that she'd seen how Control handled the maintenance schedules, she could believe that it might miss something this significant in the preliminary surveys.

"I think I've got a heading. The radiation is coming from the storage units. There's something in there."

"It's not your concern. Come inside, Hart."

"Sir, if that much radiation is getting through to the station, there might be a danger--"

"I said don't worry about it."

Did he think the radiation would go away if they ignored it? Okay, so it would go away, given a few thousand years or so. She didn't want to wait that long. Time to show a little initiative. She'd get Drexler's job one day, at this rate. Between working out crew schedules and submitting supply invoices, she already seemed to be doing most of it.

Two hundred settlers had already come aboard, people who'd put their trust in Control's assurances that the station was operational and safe. Maybe that trust had been misplaced. Maybe that bug that had been going around wasn't the flu.

The optical scanners on the first two compartments weren't working. The third, after she rerouted enough power to charge the device's battery, came to life and the optic began a sweep of the unit.

At first, she thought the device wasn't focusing. After a moment of staring she realized what she was seeing on the monitor: a dozen cylindrical plasma canisters, about six feet across; beryllium-nickel casings and mountings; piping and high-energy nozzles. While she hadn't had any direct experience with weapons-grade plasma generators, she knew the specs. Those nozzles would fire the plasma in a wide, destructive dispersal pattern, not in the focused, controlled beam used for mining and construction. The storage compartment was filled with large generators for converted plasma drills designed for military use. These weren't personal units, but ship-mounted models.

The diagnostics monitor went black.

* * *

Drexler lifted his finger from the keypad. He'd switched off power to the storage unit monitors. The management tech on duty watched him with an expression of concern and confusion.

He had to stay calm. He couldn't punch the screen like he wanted, couldn't scream at Technician Hart's inability to follow orders. He was in charge here, and he had to act like it.

The plan was still good. Hart's diligence wasn't going to ruin anything.

"Why don't you take a meal break," he said to the tech.

"I'm not scheduled for another--"

"Take a break," Drexler said, wondering if maybe he was the problem. Had something happened to his voice, that no one could follow his orders? "I'll cover for you."

"Yes, sir." The young man swiveled out of his chair and scurried away.

When the door slipped shut behind him, Drexler took his seat and settled in for the duration.

Hart was complaining over the audio feed. "Control? Control? Drexler, are you there? The monitor just went dark. Did you see what was in there?"

"Technician Hart, return to the sector airlock, please." He could talk to her better in person. In person, he could confine her to quarters.

"Drexler, do you have any idea what's in that compartment? I wasn't even able to look inside them all--"

"Never mind. Return to the sector airlock. Now."

She knew. She'd figured it out. Covenant was sitting on enough weaponry to turn the station into a fortress. Illegally sitting on the weaponry, if he wanted to get technical. He didn't.

Telemetry readings on her suit indicated she hadn't moved. She wasn't going toward the airlock. She was thinking. She was going to try to be a hero.

Her beacon showed when she started to move. Drexler traced her--moving toward the station hub. Away from the airlock.

He'd try this one more time. "Technician Hart, you are to report to the sector airlock."

Nothing. Damn her, what did she think she could accomplish?

"Technician Hart, please respond. What is the problem?"

"No problem, sir."

Then the comm cut off, as well as her telemetry reading. She'd manually cut off power to her suit's communications systems. He couldn't contact her, he couldn't trace her.

He'd simply find her using the external visual monitors. He had other systems at his beck and call as well. Maintenance bots on the hull exterior, for example.

Working in space was a dangerous business. Even with the most stringent precautions, accidents happened. Accidents happened all the time.

He clicked a few commands into the computer and called up the manual control sequences for the maintenance bots.

* * *

Never mind the legality of having weapons aboard a station licensed for commercial and residential use, those storage units weren't shielded for large plasma cells. The radiation was leaking into the station. Two hundred settlers.

If Drexler knew about the plasma generators, if Control itself was trying to keep it secret, then Covenant Station wasn't about building an independent trading colony. Drexler had other plans, and the techs and settlers were pawns. A cheap labor force.

Clicking a set of buttons on the panel on the arm of her suit, she did a quick diagnostic. The suit data recorder was still working. She had the whole exchange on a chip. If Trade Guild saw what was in those storage units. . . .

Two hundred lives. Trade Guild was the only organization with enough authority to find out what Drexler was doing with those weapons.

Drexler expected her to reenter the station at the fourth sector arm airlock. Her target--where she had to end up if she was going to go through with this--was in the first sector ring living area. There, the Trade Guild liaison who supervised code compliance kept an office. That was a long way to go, across a two-kilometer-long station, outside. Time to see if her non-Trade Guild training was worth anything.

She had two hours of air left. The easiest route would be to head toward the hub, then back out on the first sector arm. She'd have to walk, untethered, with mag boots, as the pounding of her heart filled her helmet.

Taking steady breaths, she checked the boots' hold on the station's hull. She lifted each boot, re-placed it, bounced a little to test it. The magnetic grips stuck and released on cue. She unhooked the tether and let it recoil on its belt spool.

Walking now, step by careful step, she kept her eye on Covenant's hub. The station spun on an axis, the ruddy surface of Mars arcing below, then away, as the rotation turned her view from the planet. She didn't look at the planet, didn't think of the station's movement. If she kept her eye on the hub, the station wasn't moving at all. Step by careful step. The airlock was behind her now.

The hub would be the hardest part to cross. The massive cylinder bristled with docking tubes, antennae arrays, and maintenance portals. It would be like walking through a junk heap. On the other hand, the hub offered many means of access to the station's interior. She considered slipping into the station at the hub. It would be safer, getting inside as quickly as possible, then making her way to the ring. But inside, Drexler was much more likely to stop her. Just because she was no longer in communication with Control didn't mean he wasn't still tracking her. As soon as she entered the station, he'd know. The long trek it was, then.

She paused at a flash of movement. A hull bot crossed her path, about twenty feet ahead. Hull bots, hemispherical machines about a foot in diameter, constantly swept the outside of the station, repairing micrometeor impact points. Other kinds of bots, programmed for basic external repairs, also traveled the station's surface. From another direction, a welder rolled toward her on its magnetic treads. It held its tool arm, bearing the nozzle of its torch, outstretched.

The bots had optics, so their operators could visually monitor their work. Drexler had found her.

She turned and walked away from the bot, one step at a time, letting her boots grip and release.

Ahead, she spotted more movement, glinting as it flashed from shadow to sunlight, sliding from behind an array right in front of her. She gasped, startled, when its torch lit, jetting a finger of plasma.

The two bots came toward her, forcing her back. When she tried to skirt around them, they tracked her, while a third, a cutter, surprised her from behind. Scuttling a slow two steps away, she dodged.

Its laser cutter clipped her before she found shelter behind an antenna array. The dark line of a slice appeared in the leg of her suit. The cut was small, just through the two outer layers. The suit's material was tough, it would hold up until she got inside. Assuming she could, without taking more damage.

Drexler wanted to kill her. She'd seen something she shouldn't have, of course he'd want to stop her. But kill her?

Whenever she tried to move toward the first sector arm, a bot intercepted her. Drexler must have activated every one on the station.

Rattled, she almost tripped on one of the automated hull bots.

Taking hold of its edges, she lifted, struggling for a moment against the grip of its magnetic treads. Popping its control panel, she punched keys to shift power to the vacunamel spray nozzle.

She pointed the underside of the hull bot at the nearest welder, and a spray of white hull enamel showered it. Keeping her arms rigid against the pressure, anchored by her mag boots, she aimed the bot until white paint covered the welder. The vacunamel completely masked the optics of the machine; it couldn't see her anymore. It stopped, its operator unable to guide it. She turned to the next bot and blinded it as well.

More replaced them. She couldn't stop them all. Most of the hull bot's paint sprayed uselessly into empty space. Soon, it ran out. She released the bot, which tumbled away.

The maintenance bots had cornered her and were herding her methodically toward the hub airlock. No doubt Drexler's security detail waited inside. As long as Drexler kept her on the hub, he knew exactly where she was, and it was only a matter of time before he caught her. She had to go someplace he wasn't expecting. She looked up.

A great silver pathway, lined with running lights that flashed in the shadow while its sun side gleamed, lay above her.

A thousand meters away, the ring arced overhead. The arms radiating to it were all blocked. She could get to the ring if she could launch herself. Calculate a trajectory to account for the station's spin, launch from a point that would send her to the mid-ring airlock between sectors one and two, shove off, and cruise through empty space. And if she overshot the ring? If her aim were a little off?

She had a few moments before the bots surrounded her completely. Her mental calculations faltered--the physics of it were not that difficult, but she kept having to start over. Her speed--her speed in space, with nothing to hold onto. Insane. That was the conclusion of her calculations.

She double-checked the sector markings. Between the first and second sector arms was the mid-ring airlock she wanted, the closest one to the Trade Guild office.

Her suit gear included a pair of compressed air packs. One burst of air would give her the momentum she needed. Another to steer. As long as she paid attention, she wouldn't go off course. She wouldn't miss the ring and shoot into space, solving Drexler's problem for him. She took one of the packs off her belt, ready to use it.

Crouching, she released the magnetic grips on her boots. Then she launched toward the ring, pushing against the hull as she stood.

The hub fell away.

* * *

In retrospect, he marveled that it had never even been a question. Would he kill to protect himself, to protect the revenue represented by the contents of those storage units? He hadn't even stopped to consider. He'd just done it, and he felt a touch of pride that he'd acted with such certainty, with such single-minded purpose. Really, it hadn't been a choice at all. He was too far committed to not take such drastic action. To back down now would be to lose everything.

Knowing that he would go so far to ensure the success of his plan made the next steps easier. He had no limits.

The external monitors on the station hub had lost sight of Hart. She'd avoided the bots he'd sent after her, half of which were now flashing red warning lights indicating some kind of damage. More time and effort wasted. He'd have to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that many bots would malfunction at once.

Hart was the more immediate concern. Where had she gone? Where would she go? What did she think she was doing, running all over the hull exterior to avoid him? This was a closed station--where did she think she could hide? Did she think she could escape on a shuttle without him knowing? Impossible. If she'd guessed what he was doing and wanted to expose him, where would she go?

Assuming her suit comm had recorded what she was able to see before he shut down the monitors, she'd try to get that information somewhere. Broadcast it maybe. That was easy enough to prevent. He keyed in an override on the station-wide comm system. Made some excuse about the system undergoing a diagnostic that required it being taken off line. That wasn't too much of a stretch, with all the maintenance issues Covenant had been having. No communications, intra-station or off station, were to be uploaded without his authorization.

That wasn't Hart's only access to help, however. The Trade Guild kept an office on Covenant, to deal with bureaucratic nonsense. She might go there, to give the information to the Trade Guild. Then again, she was one of those independent spacer types. She might slit her own wrists before running to the Guild with a problem.

Whether she did or didn't go to the Trade Guild office, Drexler couldn't afford to have the liaison find out about the secret cargo. That was the next step, then.

He clicked on his comm and contacted the security detail. "I need someone to meet me at the Trade Guild office. Quietly, please."

* * *

She floated free, drifting, the station turning under her.

She swallowed a lump of panic as all her instincts rebelled against her situation. All her training, all her experience told her she couldn't be safe in space unless she was anchored to something solid with a stable orbit or a decent propulsion system.

She checked her target. So far, so good. As the hub grew smaller, so the surface of the ring grew larger, its running lights sliding past. The approaching airlock was just out of sight, around the curve of the ring, properly oriented with the artificial gravity. Its markings approached--too quickly. She was going to land far beyond the airlock.

Battling inertia, she twisted her body, flailing like a landed eel, and turned so her back faced the ring. Her gut wrenched; she could no longer see the target. She wanted her whole body to take the force of the compressed air's propulsion and not have the pack rip out of her hand when she pushed the button. She held the air pack to her chest, double-checked that the air nozzle faced out, and pressed.

She flew faster now.

With luck, the monitors on the bots hadn't tracked her unexpected move--their optics were only designed to scan the hull--and Drexler wouldn't yet have found her on the station monitors. She should have just disappeared. Now, if only the risk she had taken wasn't too great.

This was taking too long. She had too much time to think.

She turned again, writhing. The ring, a hundred fifty feet across, slid past like a conveyor belt. This was going to be like jumping off a speeding car and hitting the ground.

She gave another burst from the air pack, this time to change her direction, to parallel the ring. She had to match its velocity more closely, or she'd just ricochet off and fly into space. She used short bursts, and her path changed. She was still moving too slowly, the ring was moving too quickly. She'd hit hard. She had to be ready to hold on. In preparation, she reactivated her boots' grips. Making another adjustment to her position, she put her feet in front of her and bent her knees.

The ring hull filled her whole sky. She couldn't miss. She only had to keep from skipping off the surface.

She held her breath, in preparation for getting it knocked out of her.

Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five, four, three, two--

Her boots hit and she rolled. She rolled fast. The grips didn't have time to catch hold, and her legs flailed above her, where the grips didn't do any good. She let go of the air pack.

Bouncing around the curved surface of the ring, she scraped along the metal hull. Had to catch hold, or she'd keep going.

Her shoulder snagged on something. A ladder railing. She reached out both hands. Her gloves brushed protrusions, but the force of her fall kept yanking them away.

Bending her knees, she flattened her feet against the hull. Her leg twisted, nearly wrenching her hip out of its socket as one boot caught. Then the other. She let out a cry and a hiss of breath as her tumble stopped, twisting her body, jerking her as she floated a moment then slammed against the steel. Finally, she lay at rest, spread-eagle across the hull. Weight pulled at her, her suit felt heavy. Gravity was back.

She grabbed the end of her belt tether and searched for someplace to hook it. The maintenance ladder that ran around the entire ring was an arm's length away. Rolling toward it, she hooked the tether and breathed a sigh of relief, fogging the inside of her helmet.

Just beyond the ladder was a depression in the hull, covered with warning lights and safety markings. The airlock. She used the tether to help climb to her feet. Pulling herself along, she crossed the few steps to the airlock.

Now, if she were very lucky, Drexler wouldn't have changed her access codes.

She collapsed by the control panel, still clinging to the tether with one hand, using the other to punch the keypad. Her hand was shaking so much she had a hard time finding even the oversized keys designed for use with bulky suit gloves. She paused, taking a few deep breaths, letting her heartbeat slow. She'd come too far to panic now. A few more steps, that was all she needed. Rest later.

She thought about trying a universal emergency code, which even Drexler couldn't cancel. But the station computer would alert Control immediately if she used it. Drexler could still track her using her personal codes, but the computer wouldn't sound an alarm.

Holding her breath, she faced her suit keypad to the hatch's scanner. A laser reader tracked her. Another light flashed to green. A warning signal lit inside the hatch as the air cycled out. At last, the door slid open. She dove inside and punched the keypad to reverse the airlock's cycle.

When the outside hatch locked and the air monitor flashed safe, she finally took off her helmet. She'd been breathing her own recycled air for so long, the station's recycled air smelled good.

In a panic, she hit the control to open the interior door. She knew better than to sit in an airlock without a helmet. Drexler could have just flushed her.

She fell out of the lock and onto the deck outside, rolling out of the way as the door closed.

The airlock opened into a small prep room. A couple of spare suits hung on racks in an open closet. A door led to the corridor.

Segment by segment, she peeled out of the suit. Her body was bruised from being knocked around inside the suit, her muscles sore from fighting with it for every move she'd made in the last hour. Carefully, she removed the data chip from the recorder in the helmet--all her proof, everything she'd been fleeing for--and tucked it into a breast pocket on her jumpsuit. She shoved the rest of the gear back into the airlock in the hopes that it would escape notice long enough for her to get away.

She wore a gray jumpsuit and a set of thermals underneath. Maybe she could blend in, lose herself among the rest of the crew. Except she was stocking-footed. Her shoes were back in the fourth sector EVA suit-up.

Her best plan was to act normal. Just a technician en route from one place to another, in stocking feet. She ran her hands through her short blond hair in an attempt to comb it straight. She was dripping with sweat. After wiping her face on her sleeves, her hands on her pants, she slid open the door to the corridor, and tried to act normal.

The corridors on Covenant were never crowded. The station could hold a thousand people; a few hundred dispersed through it nicely. The fewer people she saw before she reached the Trade Guild office, the better.

Ahead, the corridor branched. She took the narrow side hall which led to a set of cramped offices designed for lower level bureaucrats. Most were empty, but Covenant Control had relegated its Trade Guild liaison to the farthest one. Just because the Guild demanded compliance to certain regulations, Control didn't have to like it.

The hallway was clear. A small, glowing label on the door's exterior control panel marked the Trade Guild office. It wasn't locked, it had no message asking visitors to announce themselves, so she pushed the key to open to the door.

The office consisted of two rooms. The first, a small annex with a plastiform desk and chair tucked to the side, was empty. She went through the doorway to the next room.

There, a man sat behind a larger desk. He rested his elbows on the bare surface, held his hands folded calmly before him. He was thin, with milk-pale skin and close-cropped gray hair, and he wore a station issue gray jumpsuit.

"Drexler," she murmured. The Control Chief smiled. Her glance shifted, taking in the two figures standing behind him. They had web guns hooked to their belts.

"Technician Hart. What do you think you're doing?"

It was fairly obvious. "Where is the liaison?"

"Not here, for the moment. He had business elsewhere."

"You had something to do with that?"

He shrugged, his smile never wavering.

Drexler had second-guessed her. The whole race had been for nothing.

The Control supervisor stood and came around the desk.

"Walk with me, Hart."


He didn't answer. The two security people fell in step on either side of her as they walked to the corridor.

Drexler might even have cleared the corridors ahead of time so no residents would see the suspicious scene: one of their own technicians, escorted under armed guard. No witnesses.

They walked back the way she'd come, toward the airlock, and she had a sickening thought. She almost caused her own accident out there with that insane free jump. Drexler could cause another one, and he'd never have to explain why she'd disappeared. He still had his chance to flush her.

She said, "So. What do you plan to do with all those plasma guns?"

The Control Chief smiled thinly. "Despite what you might think, I'm not the villain in some video melodrama. I don't have to explain myself. I wouldn't expect you to understand." You're just a tech, was the unspoken thought that always accompanied statements like that.

She mentally examined deck layouts, level plans, access vents, anything between here and the airlock that might help her escape, give her hope.

The ring held three levels, plus an innermost maintenance level occupied solely by pipes, wires, and vents. One level down, where the sector two arm met the ring, was a communications relay station. Now, if only she could get there. . . .

The male security guard walked to her right, just behind her. His web gun was closest. She only had a second to move.

She ducked back a step and grabbed the gun, pulling it from his belt as she rammed his side with her shoulder. He crashed against the wall. The other guard, the woman, was fast. She drew her gun and fired before Hart could recover. The web gun spewed a stream of a viscous compound.

Hart stumbled away. Most of the shot hit the other guard, plastering him to the wall with a brown, gooey mass of tendrils. One of the tendrils caught her leg. She pulled away. It stretched; she pulled harder, standing and trying to run. She thought the guard would fire again, trapping her this time. Drexler got in the way.

She thought she could ignore Drexler; he had security with him because he couldn't fight. Of course, neither could Hart, but she was desperate and that counted for a lot. But he came at her, grabbing the hand that held the gun.

As long as he wrestled with her, she was safe from the other web gun. In a straight fight, she could beat Drexler; she was in better shape, from time spent running all over the station on his errands.

At some point, the web tendril trapping her leg broke. She planted her feet on Drexler's chest and pushed. The move wrenched him away. He kept hold of her arm, but he was at such an angle now that she could bend her wrist and fire.

The stream shot directly into his face. He screamed, the sound becoming muffled as the substance completely covered his mouth and nose. When he reached to scrape the stuff off, he let her go. She fired again at the guard, then ran. She didn't take the time to look behind; she'd either hit the guard or she hadn't. She still heard Drexler's muted screams. If he couldn't peel the stuff off, he'd suffocate.

At the sector two arm, a lift provided access to the other levels. Down one level. She reached the communications center. There, one lone tech on duty looked up wide-eyed from his console, no doubt surprised to see her standing in the doorway pointing a web gun at him.

"Get out." She waved with the gun. Web guns didn't kill--usually--but somehow, just the shape of the thing awakened a primal fear. The young tech scampered out of his chair. She stepped aside to let him slip through the doorway.

She shut the door and shorted every control she could.

She didn't know enough about the communications systems to be able to institute any fancy tricks. She depended on the automated controls.

Which were locked by a Control override.

She shouted and slapped the terminal. Couldn't anything about this be easy?

She didn't have to be quiet anymore. She didn't have to avoid sounding any alarms. She used her emergency code, hoping it would work on the comm systems the way it worked on maintenance.

The ready light went green. She pushed the command to broadcast to various Trade Guild locations on Mars. Universal broadcast.

She plugged the data chip from her suit into the computer. The trip hadn't damaged it. It still held the information, the radiation readings, the video from the storage units, and Drexler's avoidance. She copied the data to a broadcast message. All the displays showed systems positive.

Do you wish to broadcast? the display asked.

She pushed the button. Yes. Yes yes yes. She set the message on continuous repeat.

Then she sent the message through all internal communications systems. The data was now flashing on every on-board comm panel and monitor. Let Drexler explain radiation poisoning and illegal weapons possession to Covenant's two hundred residents.

For the first time in what seemed like hours, she had a moment to think. She sank into the chair and held her head in her hands. Spreading the information inside the station might start a riot. Covenant Station might be destroyed by this. She hadn't thought so far ahead.

She had to believe that she was doing the right thing.

Before too long, the display flashed a malfunction warning: power to the broadcast array had been shut down from another location, message no longer broadcasting. Then, power to the entire communications console failed. She had now lost contact with the outside.

She'd expected that. Now, she had to wait and see what damage her message accomplished. She waited calmly, hopefully, for a rescue from Trade Guild, or for the protest of the station residents. If she could only wait long enough. She was so focused on the goal of transmitting the data, she hadn't thought about what happened next. She had run out of good ideas.

* * *

He screamed and struggled, trying to pull that junk off his face while he ran out of air. The compound had slapped him like wet rubber. His ears were still ringing from it. Then his lungs burned from lack of air. He really ought to stop screaming.

Finally, one of the guards sprayed a releaser on the webbing compound, which melted away. The stuff smelled foul, tasted worse--like ethanol and sour lemons. Then he'd shouted at the guard, his temper breaking at last. She'd scrambled away to help her comrade, still tangled in the goo.

That was when a technician found him and bleeped an urgent update at his handheld. "Sir, someone's bypassed the comm override, they're using every frequency to blast a message to the surface--sir, oh my God--"

Drexler shut off his handheld comm, cutting off the panicked, amazed voice. He found the nearest peripheral control terminal. He still had the station's command codes, the overrides. For a little while longer yet, he was still in charge.

He was so tightly wound he might have been spring loaded. This wasn't about protecting the plan anymore. This wasn't about moving forward. The thing burning along his nerves wasn't calm, wasn't pride at how well he was handling the situation. It was rage. This was about revenge, now.

She'd destroyed him. He could return the favor.

He found the comm terminal that was broadcasting. Shut it down. A little checking found that she'd already sealed the room, locking herself in. Good. Made his next step easier.

For all its problems, Covenant's foundations were sound. It had been solidly built. Had to be, like all good stations. Airtight.

The ventilation system fed air into that tiny little room. All he had to do was reverse the flow. It wasn't just enough to stop the flow and seal off the room. She'd still have a few hours of air. A few hours to wait for rescue. No, that wasn't good enough at all.

She'd destroyed him with the touch of a button when she broadcast that data. Now, he could do the same. Reverse airflow to that room. Done.

Then he turned, and saw the crowd coming for him.

* * *

She wasn't going to get out of this alive, was she?

The room was completely silent. The background noise on a space station was so ubiquitous she didn't notice it--the sound of air hissing through vents was as constant and familiar as the sound of her own breathing. But when it stopped--

The flow of air started again a moment later. When she stood on the chair and reached to the vent on the ceiling, she felt the air flow--past her fingers, into the vent. Flowing out of the room.

She shut her eyes and pressed her cheek to the cool wall. She'd fought so hard. She'd won, hadn't she? Could she still fight, with only one life to save now, even if it was her own?

She found the comm station's tool kit in a wall cabinet and dug out the grips needed to lift the deck plates. She lifted one that looked the right size out of the floor, held it over the vent, and bolted it in place. The kit's tube of hull sealant gave her a scare when she thought it was empty. But she managed to squeeze out enough to seal the plate over the vent.

The fix was temporary at best. She had air now, but only a limited supply. She'd last longer than she would have if Drexler had managed to pump out all the air in a matter of minutes.

So, more waiting. For rescue, for her air to run out. To stop breathing. To think of a better plan.

She lay propped against the wall--conserving her air and her energy, she told herself. The temperature in the room had risen ten degrees, at least. A sheen of sweat covered her, made her clothing stick to her skin. She couldn't fight her way through another plan if she tried. Her wrist chronometer told her that two hours had passed since she locked herself in the comm room. It seemed longer.

A banging on the door started. Drexler and a security detail, no doubt. Almost, she was ready to let them find her.

They stopped the direct approach fairly quickly, after discovering the mess she'd made of the door control. She crawled closer to the door--not too close, as she thought of explosives--and pressed her ear to the wall to listen.

Someone was patiently removing deck and wall plates to gain access to the actual mechanism of the door.

She grabbed the biggest, meanest looking wrench she could find from the tool kit.

The door slipped, lurched. A couple of men groaned as they took up the weight and lifted it out of the way. She stood by the wall, the wrench gripped in both hands, waiting.

"Hart? Hart? Are you in there?"

It wasn't Drexler calling.

"Matson?" Her voice came out a scratching whisper. With everything else, she'd gotten dehydrated as well. She coughed and tried again, slumping against the wall.

A small, stocky man, with close-shaved hair and beard, leaned into the room, his eyes widening when he saw her, wrench still raised as a weapon.

"Matson," she sighed and dropped the wrench.

A few hours later, she lay on a bed in the medical ward. Calm and comfortable, at last. This was a precaution. She'd been dangerously dehydrated from overexertion, and the medics wanted to keep her for observation. And, she suspected, to keep her safe. No one knew who'd been part of Drexler's plan. The Control Chief was under arrest, but he wasn't talking. The investigation would go on for weeks, months maybe.

But a hazmat crew was already outside taking care of those storage units.

She'd been about to fall asleep--definitely enjoying the peace and quiet--when the Trade Guild liaison came to see her. He was one of Trade Guild's finest up-and-coming, a younger man, sharp and well dressed. Everything she wasn't. Everything she'd avoided. To think, if only she played by the rules, she could have a suit like that.

If she played by the rules, Drexler would still be duping them all.

"May I?" he said, not waiting for permission before taking the seat by her bed. She listened quietly. "We've located one of Drexler's contacts off-station. An arms dealer. They wanted Covenant Station to front a warehouse for shipping large-quantity orders of Earth and Mars manufactured weapons to colonies and mercenary outfits staging conflicts on the frontier. Without having to pay taxes and tariffs for shipping out of system, Drexler could undercut industry prices. By keeping it secret, he wouldn't need to obtain the licenses for handling the weapons. As you might imagine, Earth and Mars governments as well as the Trade Guild are very grateful for the information you delivered."

And of course Drexler had had no intention of sharing the profits with his labor force, in the spirit of Covenant's founding principles. What a jerk.

"So," she said, smiling up from her pillow. "Do I get a medal? Or are you just going to shut the whole place down and send the personnel to work camps on Mars?"

Of all things, the liaison blushed, glancing away even as he pulled a hand terminal out of his attaché case.

"Well you see, Ms. Hart, this is the odd thing. We have this little bit of policy--which the Guild would like to keep secret, so if you wouldn't mind keeping this conversation between ourselves I'd appreciate it."

He paused; she waited. "Well?" he said finally.

"Okay. I won't tell anyone."

He nodded once. "Good. You see, Ms. Hart, the Trade Guild wants a non-Guild colony here on Covenant Station. Most worlds where the Guild operates, we prefer there to be at least a couple of independent operations running. It provides a place to collect and control non-Guild spacers, and a point through which we can import resources without paying planetary government tariffs." He presented her the handheld, the screen of which was covered with dense, legalist type. "The Guild is prepared to extend Covenant's original charter to the remaining residents, assuming said residents can establish a provisional Control to manage it properly.

"My next question for you, Ms. Hart: would you like Drexler's job?"

* * *

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