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STEALING ARTURO

by William Ledbetter


I tried to stay awake and upright as the elevator bucked and jerked its way down the spoke into the Earth-normal gravity of Ring One's sleeping level. The lights flickered as the weight settled over me, pushing my exhaustion deep into every cell. I didn't know how much longer I could take it. If the power failed and left me stuck in the elevator again, I might turn into a raving mad man. Would I really ever escape this station? Were the months of covert effort wasted?

Felicia spoke, but her voice was there and not there, a feathery touch that revived memories of her fingers brushing back my hair. "You can do this. I believe in you, but you need sleep. And a shower."

I snorted and hugged her canister to my chest with one hand and scratched my two day old beard with the other. She was right. It had been nearly as long since I'd showered or slept. Extended periods working in the hub's micro gravity always did this to me, but I had little choice, time was running out.

A hand appeared before the lift door had even opened halfway, grabbed the front of my shirt and yanked me out into the corridor. Since I didn't have my gravity legs yet, I fell directly to my knees. The two Security "officers" laughed, and the one with red hair--whom I had long ago assigned the name Meathead--gave me a little shove with a highly polished boot and I further lost my balance. I had enough warning to at least tuck Felicia's canister against my chest before I toppled over like a crippled old grandpa.

A foot pressed on the back of my head, trying to shove my face into the thick grime that had accumulated in the corner over the decades. Dust and debris were sucked into the air filtration system on low gravity levels, but down here, where the poor people lived, filth collected like it throughout human history. Bits of plastic and a rusted screw decorated the black gunk only inches from my mouth, but I pushed back and rolled over quickly, causing Meathead to lose his balance and stumble backward.

I fought the centrifugal gravity and struggled to my feet, ready to kill the crisply uniformed bastard. As I braced to head butt him, before he regained his balance, I heard Felicia's voice in my head.

"Don't be stupid, Clarke. You're only four days away from your escape. You can't to be arrested now."

She was right, but I had to at least put up a token fight or they'd get suspicious. I gave the two goons a withering glare, tucked Felicia under my arm and tried to push past them. They grabbed my arms and shoved me against a bulkhead.

"Lieutenant Eisenhower sent us to ask about your ice production quota. He thinks you're holding out."

"I don't give a shit what Eisenhower thinks. I don't answer to him. I was hired by the station management."

The goon shoved me again, making my head bang against the wall. "That's Lieutenant Eisenhower. You need to show some respect."

"Lieutenant is a rank that implies either training or experience and he has neither. He's just the head guard dog and that doesn't demand respect in my book."

The second goon--the one with dark hair and beady eyes--took a swing at me, intending to pin my face between his fist and the bulkhead. I dodged, but not quite fast enough and his punch glanced hard off of my cheekbone, then scraped my cheek with his wrist comm as it continued into the wall.

He cursed and punches from both assailants rained down on me in a flurry. I bent low, intending to take a few hits and then try to dart between them, when someone yelled.

"Stop hitting him, you big turds!"

Everyone stopped and turned to see a scruffy young girl in patched clothes standing just behind Meathead. She looked to be around eight or nine and I recognized her as the girl who lived with her mother two doors down from my cabin.

"Get lost, kid!" the dark haired guy said and made a half-hearted swipe at her.

She didn't budge, just glared back at the man.

Both officers laughed, but threw no more punches. Instead, in an unexpected snatch, Meathead grabbed Felicia's canister from my grasp.

I straightened abruptly, shoved them both backward and grabbed for her can, but missed.

Meathead hefted it like a school yard bully playing keep away. "I think we'll have to confiscate this."

"No, you won't," I said.

They glanced at each other and grinned. "We already have, Kooper."

I shook my head slowly. "I don't think you understand. If you decide to keep my property, then you'll have to kill me or imprison me. And in either of those cases, you and everyone on this station will die within a couple of weeks after the water runs out. As your boss already mentioned, my production level is way down. We have about a week's worth of water in reserve. My predecessor already picked the local area clean of icy rocks and they're getting tough to find. Without me, you won't find any ice. Nor will you be able to bring a new ice miner in from Mars or Earth quick enough to stave off that rather ugly death. Of course the managers and your boss will probably hoard plenty for themselves, but do you think you'll get any?"

Meathead shifted his stance and glanced at his partner.

"And if you let me go, but still keep my property, then I have at my disposal forty-nine mining robots, each with a laser capable of burning right through the hull of this station. I wouldn't have a bit of trouble finding your cabin and I don't even have to hit you with the beam. I'd just wait until you were asleep and open a hole in the hull. Then pfffftttt you'd squirt into vacuum like a long string of goober paste."

The kid laughed and Meathead's face flushed red.

"Or you can give that back to me and we'll pretend this never happened."

"Give it back to him!" the little girl said. "Are you morons trying to get us all killed?"

Meathead's buddy poked him in the arm. "Just give him the damned can and let's go get some grub. Eisenhower didn't tell you to take his stuff anyway."

I smiled and nodded, then winced at the pain in my jaw.

Meathead tossed Felicia's canister in my direction. It tumbled and I did some silly juggling to keep it from hitting the floor. The goons laughed and by the time I had it tucked it safely under my arm, they were strutting down the corridor with their backs to the girl and me.

I took a deep breath and dabbed at the blood trickling down my cheek.

"You're a dumbass," she said.

I shrugged and slipped past her. "And you have a foul mouth. Go home before you get into trouble."

She followed me. "Me get into trouble? I saved your ass! If I hadn't come along they would have beat you into pudding."

"I guess I do owe you some thanks, but you shouldn't have done that. Those guys wouldn't hesitate to hit a kid."

I palmed the lock plate on my door. It slid open and I nearly dropped Felicia as the kid slipped past me into my dark cabin.

"What the f--" I growled then heard Felicia again.

"Don't yell at her, Clarke."

I took a deep breath and paused just inside the door. "Let's have some lights, Calvin."

The cabin computer turned on the lights and I could see her sitting in my only chair, legs dangling as she examined a power regulator module from one of my mining robots.

"You have an AI!"

"Just a smart computer," I said. "I spliced it into the cabin electronics. I do a lot of stuff like that. Now go home."

"My mom says you're crazy."

I glowered at her. "Does she also say that you're rude?"

The girl laughed. "All the time."

"Look, kid, you can't be in here. I could get in a lot of trouble." The door started to close, but I grabbed it and held it open. "Go home."

"Why would you get in trouble?"

"I'm sure your mom has warned you about being alone with strange men."

She reached for a paper book I had laying on the table, then stopped and looked at me with a perplexed expression. "You talk funny. You weren't born on the station?"

"No. I was born on Earth. In Chicago. Now, you really need to leave."

With a slow shake of her head, she crossed her arms and grinned. "You'll have to throw me out and if you do, I'll start screaming that you touched me in the naughty place."

Anger flared and I activated my wrist unit -- ready to call security to come remove her -- then stopped. Had I really just considered calling Security?

"Calvin? Lock the door open and keep a video record until this kid leaves."

"Understood," Calvin said.

The kid shrugged. "My name is Nora, not kid."

I leaned against the wall next to the door and hoped I hadn't already attracted more attention from Security. The girl twisted her mouth into an odd slant as she looked around again. She had a squarish face and the same dark hair with pale skin that seemed to dominate the station's worker population, but her eyes were bright and inquisitive, which made her stand out from most of the drug addled adults.

"So how old are you? And why does your mother let you run around alone?"

"I'm nine. And my mom has to do double shifts until I'm old enough to work in the factory. Food and space for two she always says."

I nodded, but hadn't ever thought about how people managed to raise kids on the station.

"Mom won't let go to the factory yet, but I used to help out when I got paid for scrubbing air ducts. I used to be small enough to crawl inside, but I think they found a smaller kid."

My stomach tightened and I suddenly felt very ignorant about the people surrounding me.

"Would you like a food bar?"

"Sure," she said and her face brightened.

I pulled one from my pants pocket and tossed it to her. She opened it and gobbled it down in three bites.

"It's a good thing that security guy is stupid," she said as she chewed.

I blinked at the sudden change of subject. "Why do you say that?"

"Because Mars will be at its closest point in a few weeks. They'd have plenty of time to kill you and get a replacement from Mars."

I couldn't help but laugh. "Holy crap, kid. You're a real piece of work."

"Stop calling me kid. My name's Nora. By the way, you're a terrible liar. Decompression wouldn't squirt that guy through a small hole. His body would just block it. You'd need a big hole."

"I never said a small hole, but I think he got the point."

She shrugged and looked at me through squinted eyes. "You need to clean up. When's the last time you changed clothes?"

I looked down to see fresh blood droplets added to the food and sweat stains on my dingy island shirt.

"Sorry. Hey, this has been nice...Nora, but it's time for you to go."

She ignored my comment and nodded toward Felicia's canister. "What's in the can that you were ready to kill for?"

My initial reaction was to tell her it was none of her business, but then I decided maybe the truth would shock her into leaving. I stroked the cool black metal canister and then held it up. "This is my wife, Felicia."

The kid blinked then frowned. "Um, right. Is it some kind of computer? Or a game machine?"

"When my wife died, she was cremated and her ashes were sealed in this container."

That got her attention. She had a horrified look on her face and leaned forward on the chair. "Ashes? She wasn't recycled?"

I shook my head. "They...sometimes do things differently on Earth and Mars."

"That's kinda creepy," she said.

I shrugged.

"Then why do you talk to it? That's why my mom thinks you're nuts."

"Nora!"

The yell came from just behind my right ear and made me flinch. Nora's mother rushed into the cabin, grabbed her daughter by the arm and pulled her upright. "What are you doing here?"

"Just talking," Nora said, then grinned at me. "He tried to make me leave, but I was having fun. Did you know that his dead wife is in that can?"

"Oh, Nora," the woman said and ran a hand through limp, messy hair that was dark like her daughter's. She also had the same squarish face, but hers had sharp angles from being much too thin. Her eyes were dull with exhaustion and she seemed on the brink of tears.

"I'm so sorry, Mr...?"

"Clarke Kooper," I said and extended my hand.

She edged past me out the door, dragging the girl with her, and once safely in the hall turned back and glanced at my bloody cheek and wild hair, half of which had come out of my ponytail during the fight. She took my still extended hand. "I'm Wendy and I don't think you're crazy. Nora just...has a rather vivid imagination."

"She's been quite," I struggled for a word that wouldn't sound rude, "entertaining."

"I'm sure she has," Wendy said with a sigh then turned to Nora. "C'mon, you little monster, let's go eat some dinner."

As I watched them go down the hall I thought about inviting them to eat dinner with me, then reconsidered. I didn't need to form any new attachments. I'd either be gone or dead within a few weeks.

#

The next day in my hub-based control center, I kicked off from the interface station and floated to the wall hiding my salvation. I resisted the urge to run my hand along the section where the door would appear. On the other side, exposed to the bitter cold asteroid belt, was a four by three meter external equipment blister I'd quietly and secretly converted into an escape pod.

I moved on to the robot launch tube, cycled it and opened the hatch. Burnt smelling air poofed into the cabin as I pulled out the basketball-sized mining drone called a Mining Operations Manager or MOM. Once I locked it into the fixture on my test bench, I changed its status to inactive then opened the main access cover. I slipped my hand inside and removed the mostly empty nano replicator bladder. The "mostly empty" designation could get me killed if station security found out. Nano device manufacture was strictly controlled and each tiny robot made for a MOM had to be loaded into the MOM. But nothing could count the replicators that left the MOM out on an ice ball, the number of times they reproduced or the number that returned with it. This bladder was still a quarter full.

With a series of coded taps against the MOM's inner shell, I directed the remaining replicators into a hidden conduit that allowed them to flow into the empty spaces in the station's hull structure, where they would hide until I needed them.

A loud beep announced the door opening and when I turned the breath caught in my throat. Bernard Eisenhower drifted into the room. He wore his trademark half smile that never reached his eyes. He could be beating a suspect or chatting up a pretty girl and the smile was always the same. I tried to force myself to relax. He probably wore augmentations that helped him read and record fluctuations in body heat, heart rate and eye movements.

"Hello, Clarke. How goes the dowsing? Your magic water stick still working?"

I smiled and pushed my feet into the cleats at my workbench. "Business is slow. But given time, I'm able to find enough ice to keep us going."

He worked his way around the room, looking into every open device, picking up and examining each scroll screen. He nodded repeatedly to himself.

"My boys told me about your little threat yesterday."

"They should leave me alone. I'm just trying to do my job."

"No, you aren't doing your job, Clarke. Instead, you're playing a dangerous game with Arturo Station's water supply. That makes it a Security issue, which is why I sent my men to talk with you in the first place."

Eisenhower might be a bully and abusive with his power, but he wasn't totally stupid. After my first week on Arturo Station, when I realized the highly addictive productivity enhancement drug called Canker had been put into my food--and that of nearly every worker on board--I started planning how to get out of the situation. That had been nearly a year ago and much of the ice I collected had been stored in secret tanks I'd hidden inside the hull, but the official ice I "found" for the station had dropped at a steady rate ever since. Making management and security think we had a limited supply was my only insurance if my escape plot were ever discovered.

"My predecessor used up all the close ice balls. I have to send my bots further and further out. It takes time. Maybe management should move the station to richer hunting grounds or better yet, tighten up their water reclamation system."

"Bullshit, Clarke. There's ice out there close. Our scanners see it."

"In small amounts. It would take twice as long if I tried to mine every little grapefruit sized nugget out there."

Eisenhower glared at me. "Your replacement is on the way. I'm sure he'll have better luck."

I snorted and shrugged.

"You don't believe that?"

"Hell no. If my replacement were on the way you wouldn't be wasting your time talking to me. My corpsicle would already be tumbling out toward Jupiter."

His smile almost broadened and he started toward the hatch. "Don't push it, Clarke. We have backups you don't know about and we will send you spinning to Jupiter if that ice tonnage doesn't come up a lot and very quickly."

#

I exited at my level and Nora was waiting again, this time just outside the lift. Her face lit up and she started chattering.

"You're really from Earth?"

"Yep."

"I was born here," she said. "Momma too. She was in the first generation born on the station."

"So she's never been off of Arturo?"

Nora shook her head as we approached my door. "No. Momma said they'll never let us leave."

Many of the workers would be afraid to leave. Canker was an ugly thing. It was named for the sores that formed around a user's mouth during the long and nasty withdrawal period. It left scars on most and even killed some. Arturo Station was just one of dozens that operated outside the Earth and Mars protective zones, so unless those governments had overwhelming evidence these atrocities were going on--something that would get a lot of press attention--then they would ignore the rumors. They had too many of their own problems to go looking for more.

Nora and her mother would likely spend their entire lives as slaves in this illicit bioware factory.

"So why aren't you in school?" I said as I opened my door.

She shrugged. "I've learned everything they have to teach me."

I snorted. "Sure you have. So you're an expert on Mars history, European literature and calculus?"

"They don't teach us that stuff. But I know how to clean bio-vats and assemble crystal matrices."

I just stared at her as she slipped past me and into my cabin. She looked around, then turned back to me.

"I'll clean your cabin for five credits!"

"Huh?"

"Or I can mend clothes? Anything like that. I need to earn some money. Seth has been coming a lot more since I lost my duct cleaning job. I hate Seth."

I scratched my beard. "Sure."

I locked the door open again and started giving her instructions on what to clean. She worked fast, folding clothes, shelving books, separating my trash into the proper recycling bags.

I hated this station and its criminal overlords since I first realized I'd been tricked, but had always kind of blamed myself for my own stupidity in coming. That wasn't the case for these people. They had no choice. They were born on the station and probably didn't even exist in any citizen records outside this place, but were still made to pay for food and a sleeping berth. It wasn't mean or even greedy, it was evil.

"Well?" she said. "What now?"

"That's enough cleaning for now. Calvin? Please transfer fifty credits to Nora's account."

Her eyes widened a bit and she shook her head. "That amount of work wasn't even worth five."

"It was to me."

She bit her lip and stared at me for a second, before darting down the hall.

#

"This is fantastic," Nora said in a whisper.

I could barely see her mouth below the interface goggles, but it was stretched into a wide smile. I glanced down at the scroll screen echoing what she saw. The MOM's work lights swept along one of Arturo Station's four rotation rings, revealing a complex field of conduits, access hatches, antennae and stenciled identification labels.

"Could you really find that jerk's cabin from the outside?" she said, as she tapped and spun the thumb controls on the tele-operation yoke like an expert.

"If I knew his cabin address," I said, then briefly took the controls to zoom the MOM's camera down to read some of the hull identifier text. It read R1S4-43. "These station habitat rings are assembled from hundreds of identical wedge shaped sections. One for each cabin. So it's just easier to keep the construction identification tags as a cabin address."

"Cool!" she said and took the controls yoke away from me again. "How did you use that camera zoom?"

I showed her and suddenly the view slaved to my scroll screen started zooming all over the station.

"I bet you spy on people all the time!"

"I do not," I said and took the yoke from her again. "And I think this lesson is over."

"Noooo!"

"We can do it again later."

I helped her remove the interface goggles. Her hair floated nearly straight up and she wore a wicked grin.

"You have a great job."

"You didn't think so until I let you drive a robot."

Nora's mother refused to let her come with me until I told her After nearly an hour of Nora's begging, her mother finally allowed her to accompany me to my hub control center for the day instead of staying in her cabin alone. I thought she might like to watch me launch and retrieve some robots. She'd been fascinated for a while by the video feeds coming back from some of the MOMs as they shepherded their flock of nano-disassemblers through the process of stripping the rock and minerals away, leaving the remaining ice in strange, twisted, lacy sculptures that were returned to the station by the MOM.

But she eventually got bored with the video feed, and started playing in the micro gravity. My control center was really too small of a space for her to be flailing and bumping around, so I had to do something.

"I like having you for a friend," she said and then glanced away as if embarrassed that she said it aloud.

"I like you too," I said and then felt suddenly and horribly guilty again. My makeshift escape pod was finished. Using nothing but nano-scale robots, I'd bypassed critical systems without sounding alarms and had slowly separated the equipment blister from the station hub. The little ship contained a minimalist acceleration sling and enough air and water for the two-week trip to Mars.

So why did I feel so damned guilty? She wasn't my kid, but when my hands started shaking I knew I couldn't leave her here. I started rearranging the computer model of my escape pod, adding a second acceleration sling, trying to find places to attach more tanks. I'd need near twice as much water and air. I'd also need more fuel to get that extra mass to Mars. Food? Should I take more food or let her suffer the same excruciating withdrawal I would?

Felicia's voice echoed in my head, telling me no, that I couldn't take Nora. I looked up at her canister locked in its special mount, but ignored her and kept working.

"What are you doing now?" Nora said from right beside me.

I flinched and closed the scroll screen. "Just some work."

She reached out and touched Felicia's canister. "What was she like?"

I tensed up. I hadn't talked to anyone about Felicia since her death and sure never expected to start with a nine year old kid, but as I stared at Nora's open and curious face, I realized I actually did want to talk about her.

"She was very brave and smart. She laughed a lot and loved jokes. And singing. I think she would have liked you."

"You loved her a lot?"

I nodded, the lump in my throat preventing me from saying more.

"And you still talk to her?"

"Yeah," I croaked.

Then she looked at me and squinted. "Does she ever talk back?"

"Sort of," I said. "I can still hear her in my mind sometimes."

"How did she die?"

I swallowed hard. I'd never had to say the truth out loud, in my own words. The helmet cam video of the incident had told the story back on Phobos, so the was never an investigation. I was reprimanded and reassigned, but never once had to talk about it.

My stomach clenched tight and my pulse raced. I'd always hated the cold vacuum, but after Felicia's death, I went to great extremes to avoid it. Herding robots from a warm, safe workstation had been as close to cold space as I intended to get. Until I formed my escape plan.

I blinked at Nora and took a deep breath.

"We lived on Phobos station. We were both surface equipment technicians. One day while we were outside I started goofing around. I jumped up on a big rock that gave way and rolled out from under me. I knew better. I knew to not step on boulders and still... Anyway, the big rock rolled down a slope and on top of Felicia. The gravity was low, but the rock had mass and momentum. It tore her suit and pinned her down. By the time I got the rock off of her and fixed her suit, it was too late."

She touched the canister again.

"It was an accident," she whispered. "But that didn't stop you from feeling it was your fault?"

I nodded. How could a freaking nine-year-old kid understand those kinds of feelings?

Felicia was right. I couldn't take Nora with me. It would be wrong to separate her from her mother, even for her own good. And of course I'd be instantly arrested at Mars for being a child abductor. I'd have to find a way to take them both.

"I think my mom would like you," she said with an impish grin. "I asked her to invite you to our cabin for dinner, but she said that probably wasn't a good idea. It might make Seth mad."

"Is he your dad?"

"I think so, but my mom won't admit it. He spends the night with mom sometimes and she says I have to be nice to him since he's her boss."

I swallowed and felt the panic rising in me again. I had to do something.

When her shift ended, Wendy came to collect Nora.

She hesitated, looking uncomfortable at first, then her gaze hardened. "You sent two payments of fifty credits each to Nora's account. She cleaned for you?"

"Yeah, my cabin and then she cleaned up in here," I said and motioned around my still cluttered work bay.

Nora looked momentarily surprised, then immediately hid it.

"If she wants to come back, I can teach her how to scrub down the robots. They have to be cleaned after every trip out and I hate doing it."

Wendy stared at me, as if trying to read my mind, read my true motivations for being with her daughter.

"There are video recordings of each time she's come to see me. I'll give you access to them."

Then her hard expression collapsed and she looked twice as tired as before. "Sorry, I just..."

"No need."

After they left I floated in the middle of my suddenly very quiet and lonely work bay. I had made no friends and had no lovers since arriving on Arturo Station. It had made my planning easy. But not now.

I pulled Felicia's canister from its mount and held it to my chest.

"I wasn't really brave," she said. "That was just an act to impress you."

"Shut up. You're the most amazing person I know."

"Knew," she said.

I shrugged. "I miss you."

She didn't answer and I floated around the bay for a long time, holding her and remembering. Finally I bumped against the wall that hid my escape pod and new I had to do something. There are the mistakes of our actions, like my stupidity that killed Felicia, but also mistakes of our inactions.

"How can I do this?" I whispered to the can.

"You already know," she said. "You've already decided."

She was right, as always, and the answer was quite simple.

But the execution would be a cast iron bitch.

#

I'd done it again. The gradual increase in gravity from nothing to Earth normal felt as if it would crush me and I could barely stay on my feet. I'd worked more than twenty hours getting everything ready and had almost finished, but with just a few small tasks left, I had to stop and sleep. Even with help from Canker, if I continued on this path I would forget something critical and it would all be wasted.

When the lift door opened I was nearly knocked down by a scowling man who actually growled at me before the door closed. I staggered down the corridor to my cabin, glad for once that it was late in the evening shift and Nora hadn't been there to greet me. Before I could even cross the room to my bed, I heard a pounding on the door and the cabin computer announced Nora.

"Damn." I couldn't. Not now. I ignored her and lay down, but the pounding was insistent and the computer eventually informed me that she claimed it was an emergency.

I opened the door and my fatigue instantly vanished. Tears streaked Nora's face and her hands were covered with dried blood. She grabbed my arm and dragged me down the hall.

"You have to help my mom! Seth beat her up. She's hurt bad."

I ran the last few steps to the still open door.

Her mother lay curled into a fetal ball on the bed. Wet bloody towels lay on the floor beside her, but they hadn't stopped any of the bleeding. Her face was still a bloody mess.

I knelt next to her. Fury and frustration pushed me to the edge of yelling, but I made my voice soft. "Wendy? This is Clarke. Can you hear me?"

She groaned and said something I couldn't make out.

"Before you came, she said her stomach hurts and she can't breathe."

My fury turned to fear as I realized that probably meant internal injuries. "Did you call Security?"

"Twice. The first time while he was still hitting her. They still haven't come."

Security officers were supposed to respond immediately to all injuries and provide transport if needed. Bastards were probably trying to protect Seth since he was a manager.

"We're going to have to take her to the Medical Unit ourselves," I said. "But we'll need some help. Stay with her and I'll be right back."

A minute later, with Nora's help, we slid Wendy and her mattress onto the collapsible equipment dolly I had grabbed from my cabin. It wasn't a good fit, but by positioning Wendy's weight over the wheels and letting half of the mattress drag behind, we managed to roll her through the mostly abandoned corridors, halfway around the ring to the Medical Unit.

#

The soft, yet insistent chiming from my wrist unit eventually made me open my eyes. At first confused by my surroundings, I then spotted Nora standing next to her mother's regrowth tank and it all came back in a rush. If my alarm was sounding, it meant I had an hour before my automated units went active and I wasn't ready yet.

I stepped up beside Nora and looked down at her mom. Wendy floated in a tank filled with blue tinted gel. A tube came from her mouth and tiny blinking monitoring units were attached to her in various locations. She was awake and, even though buried in medical artifacts, already looked much better.

"How is she?"

"The medtechs say she'll be okay, but she'll have to stay here in the tank for a few days."

The letters "TNK YU" appeared on a screen attached to the tank, and I realized Wendy had a small keypad attached to one hand.

I smiled, wishing I could say something cheerful and positive, but the Security officer who came to get statements from Nora and Wendy after we arrived just said they would "talk to" Seth. He was a manager. He was effectively immune to punishment. Of course, if my plan worked, things would get better soon enough, but I had to get to my hub workstation and prepare.

"I'm going to have to go," I said. "I have something important to take care of, but I'll be back later."

I wasn't sure if that last statement was true or not, but I would try.

"PPLS TAK CAR OF NORA."

I stared at the message, wondering how to answer. I couldn't take her. If my crazy attempt at seizing control of the station didn't work, then I'd be in a lot of trouble. I didn't want Nora with me if that happened. I'd assumed Nora would want to stay with her mom.

"Nora, would you rather stay here or come with me?"

She looked at me and screwed up her face. I could tell she didn't know what to do and was on the verge of tears.

"GO," appeared on the screen. "I NED SLEEEP. PLS TAK HER."

I swallowed and nodded. "Okay, kiddo. Let's go. We have a lot to do in the next hour."

#

Everything was ready, with five minutes left on the clock. I looked up from my screen and saw Nora floating in the corner of my little workshop, quietly spinning a screwdriver in the air before her face. Her expression held not even a flicker of hope.

"Be careful with that screwdriver," I said.

"I'd punch it through Seth's head if I could," she said with enough venom that it made me wince. "I hate him!"

"Things are going to get better," I said.

She glanced at me, then away. "I don't see how. He'll keep beating my mom and Security won't stop him."

"Look at me."

She looked up, a little startled at my tone. I wanted to tell her what was about to happen, but didn't dare risk saying anything that could tip off Eisenhower's watchers.

"This is a dangerous room. If anything unexpected happens, you have to do exactly as I say. Do you understand?"

Her eyes locked on mine and squinted slightly. She knew there was something unusual in my statement.

"Um...okay," she said.

I nodded slowly, then picked up Felicia's canister and held it tight as I watched the screen.

While building my escape pod, I'd already learned how to find and bypass control systems without alerting Security, but that had been on a very small scale and in a localized area. So I spent the majority of the previous day interrogating Arturo Station's control and security systems. They had not only the standard triple redundant hard-wired arrangement, but also a fourth and fifth version running along the outside skin in armored cable troughs.

Using my unique method of programming that involved combinations of verbal code words, eye movements, keyboard entries and finger taps, I instructed my robotic accomplices to build fifteen wireless bypasses, inside and outside the hull. Then, when I seized control, my nano-robots would proceed to destroy the original lines. They would send their robots and technicians out to find the problem, but find only empty troughs.

When the timer hit zero, our world changed with a simple message.

EMERGENCY CONTROL CENTER ESTABLISHED.

A virtual control panel appeared on the screen and I started selecting options. The first thing I did was call up a crew status screen. In typical Eisenhower style, it showed the location of every person on the station. I applied a filter to just see managers, security officers, and control room employees. Once I had a good feel for their locations, I sent the emergency de-spin command.

"EMERGENCY DE-SPIN WILL COMMENCE IN TEN MINUTES. THE STATION WILL THEN BE IN A ZERO GRAVITY SITUATION. PLEASE FIND A SECURE LOCATION."

"Holy crap! What're you doing?" Nora said.

"Buckle in, kid," I said.

"Nora!" she said as she pulled her way along the wall and started to slip her arms into straps.

"Not there. On that wall over there," I said and pointed to the aft wall.

She did as told, then said, "This must be the unexpected situation you expected."

I smiled and nodded, but kept my gaze on the personnel screen. As I hoped, all of the control employees and managers were racing for their duty stations or secure cabins in Ring Four. Security however was a different matter. They were scattered around the station and seemed to be running in circles. Two were still in Ring One. I cursed under my breath.

"What the hell are you doing?" she whispered.

"Stop cursing," I said.

"Fine. But what are you doing?"

"I'm stealing the station. I'm going to fly it to Mars orbit."

She said nothing and when I looked up, she was staring at me with her mouth hanging open.

"How? I mean your robots are cool, but they can't push this huge station!"

"Sure they can. It would just take a long time to build up speed. But there's no need. How do you think they got the station out here? The fusion reactor that gives us electricity can also power the engine they use to move the station. Luckily, we enough fuel to accelerate up to speed and slow us down at Mars."

"Wow," she whispered. "But what about security? Even if you control the station, they'll come get you."

"I have plan for that too," I said as the warning sounded the two minute mark. Except for five security officers, all the station's key personnel, a total of ninety-seven, had scurried to Ring Four as I hoped.

The klaxon sounded and green lights appeared all over my screen's station diagram, indicating each section and ring had been sealed off. When the last hatch lock engaged, the station's hull shuddered and groaned.

"Nothing's happening!" Nora squealed.

"Sure it is. The station takes about ten minutes to stop spinning."

"But..." she stopped and looked around the workshop. Some stuff along the walls shifted around, but there was little change in the hub. "Oh right. We were already in zero gravity."

"Micro gravity."

"Wait! What about my mom? Will she be okay?"

"She's suspended in a tank of gel. She'll be even safer than we are."

When the control status showed we had come to a complete halt, I engaged the drive at ten percent thrust. The station creaked and moaned again, this time anything not locked down started sliding aft. Felicia's canister rolled toward the edge of my bench, but I grabbed it in mid-air as it launched.

"I wonder what you would have thought of this," I muttered, but she didn't answer.

Just before I touched the icon to disengage Ring Four, the screen turned to static.

"Damn it!" I said and slapped the bench.

"Don't curse," Nora said, with a smug voice. I nearly yelled at her to shut up, but instead clenched my teeth. She had earlier hit on my plan's biggest weakness. The station was essentially four equally-sized rings attached to a tubular central core. Since the only way to travel between rings, was to take elevators up the spokes to the core, sealing each ring in time of emergency was quite easy. But given enough time, Eisenhower and his goons would get out of their locked sections and come after me. To prevent that, I had planned to disconnect Ring Four from the rest of the station and leave it behind for the authorities to come and collect after we'd told our story on Mars. That now looked doubtful. I wondered briefly how I would hold up under torture.

"What happened?" Nora asked.

One glance at her and I realized they wouldn't need torture. They could make me do anything if they could get to Nora.

"I think they're jamming my wireless communications. I'm crippled without it."

"Damn," she muttered. I glared at her for a second, then grabbed a MOM unit from the rack and powered it up. Using her directional antenna I confirmed my suspicion. The signal was strong from the aft direction, where Ring Four was located.

I closed my eyes and cradled the MOM in my lap for a few minutes. How had Eisenhower figured it out so fast? Felicia's voice answered the question.

"It doesn't matter. You know what you have to do now."

I took a deep breath and pulled along the wall to the emergency locker, where I yanked out two balloon suits.

"Put this on. It's an adult small, but may still be big on you, so cinch it up around the waist, wrists and neck. Just not tight enough to cut off the blood flow."

She took the clear plastic compressed suit. "I know how. We have emergency drills, remember?"

I struggled into mine as the dread continued to build. First the rapid breathing, then the shakes and vomit rising in my throat. I hadn't been in any kind of pressure suit or vacuum since Felicia's death. I didn't want to do this.

I started to explain the entire situation to Nora, then stopped. I didn't think Security could still hear me since I'd seized the control system, but I wasn't sure. I grabbed a piece of paper and quickly wrote it down.


I have a secret space pod attached to the other side of the outer wall. I have my nanobots programmed to automatically open and then close a hole in the hull to let me get to the pod. Just in case they are slow and some air leaks out, your suit will inflate automatically and protect you until you can get out through the hatch.


I handed the sheet of paper to her and and waited for her to read it.

"Understand?" I asked.

"You're leaving? No!"

"I have to. I'll be right back."

"Send a robot!"

"No radio communications. I have to keep my hands on the MOM to talk to it."

Her lip quivered, but she didn't cry.

I snatched Felicia from the bench and handed her to Nora. "Can you take care of her while I'm gone?"

She nodded, then sealed the suit's breathing mask over her face.

I sealed my suit, grabbed my tool harness and tucked a MOM under my arm, then using the tip of the screwdriver Nora had been playing with to tap a series of commands on the wall. A section of the wall started to fade, then turned into a hole that continued to grow until I could step through and into my pod. I then tapped the command to close the hatch and the hole.

I switched on the air circulation and heaters, then tapped the separation command against the wall. Within seconds, the pod floated free and I turned it toward the aft part of the station. There were only two antennas positioned on Ring Four that could beam directly at my small comm array, so I moved the pod to a point between them and instructed it to maintain position relative to the moving station.

Then came the part that terrified me. With shaking hands I attached my tether to an interior bracket, then opened the pod's little hatch and held on as the atmosphere vented. The suit inflated, but I immediately felt cold. The balloon suit heaters weren't meant for EVA or any kind of extended vacuum exposure, they were designed to give people a chance to survive a hull breach long enough to escape to a pressurized area. I had to work fast.

I gripped the MOM's carrying handle in one hand and pulled through the hatch with the other. I hadn't been in hard vacuum for many years and was immediately swept by gut wrenching vertigo. The only lights on the station exterior were flashing navigation strobes and a few floods that illuminated airlocks and important maintenance panels. Since there were few soft shadows this deep in space, the starkly lit edges contrasted with total blackness and made depth perception difficult. After a few seconds my mind sorted through the individual islands of light and I was able to get my bearings. By tapping on the MOM's case with the screwdriver, I activated her flood lights and turned them toward Ring Four's hull.

I was shivering and my teeth were chattering by the time I located the first antenna. It looked much further away than I'd thought it would be, but I had little time and had to try. My shaking hands made tapped commands to the MOM very difficult, but after the third try, a tiny aiming screen flipped open on the MOM's side and I targeted the antenna, then triggered the heavy mining laser.

At first nothing appeared to happen. I could see the beam diagramed on the tiny screen, but only occasional sparkles along its actual path as it vaporized some of the dust that orbited the station. Then parts of the antenna started to glow orange and the dish slumped backward against the station's forward momentum.

Tiny warning lights flashed along the upper edge of my breathing mask, informing me I had only twenty minutes of compressed air left and my temperature was dropping to dangerous levels. I didn't need warnings to tell me that. I could barely feel my fingers and my shaking hands were almost useless. I found it hard to think straight. I knew I probably couldn't control my instruction taps well enough to turn the laser off and back on again, so I swung it upward away from the station and then turned toward the other antenna.

I couldn't see the antenna. In order to use the MOM's flood lights, I'd have to turn off the laser or risk blowing a hole in the hull. As I tried to tap the off command for a third time, sound crackled through my ear piece. The MOM was sending me a message telling me she would overheat if she didn't stop the laser.

"I'm trying damn it!" I said through chattering teeth. Then I realized she had contacted me via radio.

"Turn off laser, MOM."

"Laser off."

"I need you to acc...ess the EMERGENCY CONTROL CENTER screen back in the wor...kshop."

"Contact established."

"Ini...tiate the Ring Four sep...aration pro...proto..col."

"Initiated."

Without a sound, huge mechanical locks swung away from the ring struts. Clouds of chipped paint and ice crystals puffed into space and the ring separated into two C-shaped halves, each carrying three struts. Since the rest of Arturo was still under thrust, the two halves tumbled away slowly and fell behind. In the distance, near one the Ring Four sections, I saw a wheeling, roughly star-shaped figure that resembled a human body. Then it passed out of the light and was gone. Could I have breached the hull? It didn't matter now. If I had it was too late and I was a murderer.

I could no longer feel my hands or feet, but using tiny puffs from the MOM's attitude thrusters and hooking my arms and wrists around the hatch frame I pulled myself back into the pod. Using the MOM as an interface, I verbally commanded it to close the pod's hatch, pressurize the cabin and turn the heat on high.

#

I felt no elation as I left the pod and floated back into my little hub workshop, only exhaustion and a niggling worry about what could only have been a floating body. My hands and feet felt as if they were on fire, but I knew from my winters in Chicago that feeling the pain was a good sign.

I instructed the nanobots to seal the hull again and turned to Nora. She sat in the control seat with my interface goggles covering the upper half of her head. I immediately realized that her bubble suit hood was pulled down around her neck, but before I could yell at her I also saw that her quivering mouth and chin were covered with tears.

"Nora?"

She didn't answer.

I pulled myself over to the control station and looked at the scroll screen attached to the workspace next to her. It showed the same employee location diagram I had used to watch the Ring Four occupants scurry back to their cabins, only now it was separated into two large C-shaped sections. One of the cabin wedges was flashing red with a decompression tag. Blinking employee ID markers filled the corridor outside the ruptured cabin. So perhaps I really had killed someone.

Nora flinched when I gently pulled the goggles from her head. Tiny tear beads left a glittering trail between the goggles and her face, then started falling aft. She slapped them aside and ran wet hands through her rumpled hair.

"I'm sorry you had to see that, Nora. I'm not sure what happened. Nobody should have died. I don't know--I just..."

She cocked her head at me and squinted tear clogged lashes together. "You didn't kill anyone. I did."

I blinked at her, totally confused.

She pointed at the employee location diagram. "You left that open. I saw where Seth's cabin was and I remembered what you told that guy about burning a hole in his wall."

A cold chill crept down my back.

"And you'd already showed me how to control the MOMs."

I couldn't speak, but I grabbed her and pulled her into a tight hug. She broke down into great gulping sobs muffled against my chest. Then she spoke. In long unbroken strings.

"I saw it all! Through the camera. I'm not sorry he's dead, but... I didn't know you were going to leave them behind. Will I go to jail? He just clawed at...at nothing. I thought he'd die instantly, but..."

"Shhhh...It's all over."

"Will I go to jail?"

"No...I don't know. I don't think so. You were trying to protect your mother."

She cried again. I stroked her hair and there was nothing I could say that would make it better, but I might still be able to protect her. I'd gone to this much trouble to get Nora fee, I wasn't about to let her be incarcerated by the Martian state if I could help it.

Since the MOM systems are under my control, if I admitted to ordering the attack on Seth, the Martian investigators would probably not see any need to dig further. I decided to send the authorities a message admitting that I had stolen the station and killed Seth. Perhaps, under the circumstances they would be lenient.

After a couple of minutes, I sat Nora back in the control seat and looked at the EMERGENCY CONTROL CENTER screen. Just over an hour had passed since I sent the de-spin command. I ordered the station to slowly spin up again, increased the thrust to 60% and triggered the automatic course corrections that would send us to Mars.

#

After the station's remaining three rings were once again spinning and providing Earth normal gravity, we entered the elevator for Ring One so that we could go see Nora's mother in the Medical Unit.

When the lift doors closed, Nora looked up and me and said, "I can't stop thinking about what I did."

"I know," I said and knelt down next to her. "Look, what you did is wrong and that will never change, but it's over. You can get past this and live your life. I didn't think I could go on after Felicia died, but I did. Does that make sense?"

She shook her head slowly. "It's not the same thing."

"No. It's not the same," I said and then stood up. I couldn't look her in the eye for my next statement. "When we get to Mars, it will be kind of crazy, but I need you to do something for me. I don't want you to lie to anyone, but I also don't want you to tell about Seth unless you're asked."

Her eyes squinted at me, immediately suspicious. "Why?"

Before I could answer, the door opened and a burner gun was thrust into my face, with Meathead attached to the other end.

"My last orders from Lieutenant Eisenhower were to arrest your sorry ass and that's what I'm going to do."

I sighed and gently pushed Nora behind me.

"No, you're not," I said, trying to sound calm and reasonable, "and I'll tell you why. We're on our way to Mars. It's all automated at this point and the controls are locked down. Nothing you do to me will change that. I've also already started broadcasting messages to the press about what has happened here, how we were all enslaved, but finally managed to take over the station and come seeking freedom and justice from the Martian people."

Meathead blinked and glanced at his equally confused partner. Most of that had been a lie. I wasn't really broadcasting to Mars yet, but still had the better part of two weeks to start that up.

"So? You're still under arrest."

"You don't want to be jailed for murdering me as soon as we get to Mars space do you?"

"No one said anything about killing you," he muttered and lowered the gun.

"Good. If you don't beat anyone up during the next two weeks, we might actually be able to pass you two off as heroes who helped save all these poor people. Wouldn't you like to be a hero?"

Meathead chewed on his lip and glanced at his partner who just shrugged.

"It's not like he can go anywhere," Nora said. "You'll know where to find him if you decide you need to beat him up later."

"Gee, thanks," I muttered.

Meathead holstered his gun. "There will be a trial, you know."

"Yeah, but wouldn't it be better for the press to think you're a hero instead of bully?"

"Girls love heroes," Nora said.

That made him smile, then he produced a stern face again. "Why should we trust you? What would stop you from making us out the bad guys when the trial comes?"

"I just want to get this station to Mars. I don't really care what happens to you two after that. Besides, you know that with my robots I could have killed you any time I wanted and yet you're still here."

He thought about that for a second, then shrugged. "C'mon Ramon. Let's go get some grub."

Nora and I started down the corridor in the other direction, toward the Medical Unit.

"You did good, Clarke," Felicia said and I stopped in the middle of the hall. I had forgotten Felicia's canister in my workshop. It was the first time since her death that I'd gone farther than the bathroom without her.

I wasn't really crazy, not totally. I knew that Felicia's voice was all in my head, but part of me had always believed that voice would go away if I didn't keep what was left of her near me. Now I knew that wasn't true.

"What's wrong?" Nora said.

I took a deep breath, shook my head and continued walking. "Nothing important. Let's go see your mom."


END



Copyright © 2014 William Ledbetter


William Ledbetter lives near Dallas with his family and too many animals. A Writers of the Future award winner, Bill is also a consulting editor at Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Bill is the administrator of the annual Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest for Baen Books. He can be found on the web here.


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