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21 March

Paramaribo, Suriname

Earth Surface

“I can’t believe how sweet this is,” said Dona Obata.

“Agreed,” Alice said. They had ordered coffee, and without asking any further questions the (human) waiter had brought it to them iced and black, with something like seventeen sugars mixed in.

They were on the patio of a crumbling stucco café in Paramaribo, Suriname, South America, sweating in the steam-cooker heat. Alice was wearing a white straw hat and flip-flops and a sundress, partly because she was undercover, and partly because the sun was too brutal for anything else. Jesus, one hundred fifty million kilometers away and it was still too damn close for comfort. At Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 1—the balancing point between the gravity of the Sun and Earth—the Sun would be 1.6 million kilometers closer still, and about two percent brighter and hotter. But of course they’d be hiding in a space station, in the shade of the Esley Shade, which was only one percent transparent to visible light. Like a really dark pair of sunglasses—which Alice was also wearing.

Dona Obata—whose skin was the color of dark acorns—was wrapped in an African-print sarong, and wore wedge heels with leather wrappings halfway up to her knee. No hat or glasses for her, but she did pick a seat facing away from the midmorning glare, and was sweating profusely. Dona was also undercover, from someplace called le Commandement des Opérations Spéciales. The third member of their undercover party, First Sergeant Bethy Powell of the New Zealand Special Air Service, would be meeting them tomorrow night before the launch.

“I hear sugar is practically free here,” Dona added. She was nominally French, though she’d grown up in the Republic of Congo, somewhere near Kinshasa, and still carried the accent. Her cover story was that she was a twenty-eight-year-old tax auditor, no kids, never married. Alice didn’t know much about her actual history, or where she’d learned to fight, but knew that she was lethal at zero-gee hand-to-hand combat.

“Hmm,” Alice said, touching the cold glass to her forehead for a moment.

They were staying in character, pretending they’d only just met, because Paramaribo was full of spies and reporters and space-industry professionals from all over the world, and the risk of being overheard and ratted out was substantial. The city was also full of scammers and hustlers of various kinds, and ethnically Dutch social climbers looking to get in the graces of whoever was in power. The street beside them was paved with bumpy rectangles of a material a bit like cobblestone and a bit like cinder block, and traveled by everything from autonomous trucks to noisily hovering delivery and surveillance drones and even the occasional donkey cart, and there were cameras on every corner, piped to God-knows-where. From this point forward, literally anyone could be listening.

A woman in a tank top, short shorts, and flip-flops approached them from the street.

“Hello?” she asked tentatively.

“Jeanette? Jeanette Schmidt?” Dona Obata asked, having recognized one of the civilian colonists from her profile pictures.

The woman looked relieved. “Yes. Are you Alice?”

She is.” Dona nodded toward Alice.

“Oh. Right. Of course. Vietnamese?”

“Korean American,” Alice answered. Some might consider it a rude question, but Alice didn’t, and anyway it was too damn hot to worry about anything but the cold beverage in her hand. In return she asked, “German American?”

Jawohl, by way of four generations in Texas. May I sit?” Jeanette looked flustered, or maybe just overheated. She then proceeded to pull up a chair without waiting for an answer. She was surprisingly heavy for a space colonist—almost two meters tall, and thickish through the limbs and middle. Alice couldn’t tell how much of it was fat and how much was muscle or skeleton, but right away she knew Jeanette Schmidt must have some skills in seriously short supply up on Esley Shade Station. In most countries on Earth, it was technically illegal to discriminate in hiring based on height or weight, but in the space business every kilogram of matter cost thirteen thousand U.S. dollars just to lift into orbit, so the value of the person herself had better exceed that, or she was most definitely staying on the ground. Alice herself was certainly a smaller-than-average person, and so was Dona Obata.

To Alice, Jeanette said, “I like your hat. I’d buy one if we weren’t blasting off in two days. Hell, I still might.”

“It’s critical life-support equipment,” Alice agreed.

She racked her brain for details about Jeanette Schmidt. They were shipping out for Esley with six other women besides Bethy Powell—six innocent civilians who had no idea they were headed into trouble, alongside three undercover soldiers bent on mayhem. Six dossiers were not a lot to memorize, but Alice hadn’t done it. All she could dredge up was that Jeanette was the youngest of the group. Maybe twenty-five years old? She looked it, too.

“You’re coming from a mining school in Colorado?” Dona asked her.

She smiled. “School of Mines, yes. It’s more like a mathematical school, or an economics one, but my master’s degree is in Near Earth Asteroid Resource Utilization. So yes.”

“Ah,” Alice said. That answered that. The Esley Shade and station were made of asteroidal material, and so was everything else they were building up there. Degrees like Jeanette’s were rare, and in high demand, so she could probably have carried the mass of four people and still gotten the job.

As if sensing Alice’s thoughts, Jeanette looked sideways at her for a moment and then said in her light Texas drawl, “I also want kids, and not necessarily in the framework of a traditional relationship. And I rank very low in claustrophobia and agoraphobia, high in agreeability, and I meet the IQ requirement with room to spare.”

It was a challenge of sorts. I meet the profile, lady. Why are you here?

Dona intervened, saying to Alice, “Aren’t you also from Colorado?”

To which Alice said, “Intermittently, yes.”

“Ah, that’s right. You’re in the Air Force.”

Alice made a dismissive gesture she hoped did not look calculated. “Not now, but I was, yes. A member of the Pararescuemen, which is an air-drop medical team.”

They were far more than that, as Dona knew perfectly well. The Pararescuemen were the silent accompaniment to special forces of nearly every other branch of the U.S. military. When some shot-up Navy Seal screamed “Medical Evac!” into a walkie, from an exposed position on some godforsaken beach, it was someone like Alice Kyeong he was screaming it to. We couldn’t handle it here, so we need you to come get us.

And of course the Special Tactics Rescue Squadrons were elite fighting units in their own right, and the 23rd was first among equals. Alice could pilot a glider, had been through Airborne School and Underwater Combat Training and EMT-paramedic training, and could eat Army Ranger School for breakfast. She’d gone in with a pre–GI Bill associate’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Colorado (C-minus average), and always figured when she got out, if she got out, she’d take a job with the Flight for Life air ambulance service or something. Some of the Maroon Berets chose medical school instead, but that was not the solid job guarantee it once had been, and anyway it seemed so dull. Alice actually had no clear idea what she wanted to do with her life, but prodding the diseased flesh of flabby civilians probably wasn’t it. On that basis, even Flight for Life would be a questionable choice.

“I got out last August,” Alice said, “when I heard Renz Ventures was recruiting for long-term space colonists. I figured my qualifications would jump me to the front of the line, and I was right.”

Of course, the Renz Ventures recruitment team had thought they were speaking with someone in Colorado Springs. Some of the time that was true—especially when they flew out to interview her in person—but most of the time she was up at the Marriott Stars, getting the shit kicked out of her by people like Dona Obata and Bethy Powell, and the U.S. Space Force combat instructors. “Zedo” was the art of hand-to-hand combat in microgravity, and it had literally been pounded into Alice over a period of months. The “physical screening” RzVz had done was trivial by comparison. Ten pushups? Fifty sit-ups? A zero-gee multi-parabola flight totaling less than two minutes of weightlessness? The hardest thing they’d asked her to do was swim out the window of an airplane they’d slid down some cables, into a tank full of water that never even touched the rounded top of the fuselage’s ceiling. There wasn’t even any glass for her to break through, or parachute to fight her way out of. She’d completed the entire course in a single week, and then gone back “home” to the Marriott Stars.

So the only real cover in Alice’s backstory was the fiction that she’d spent the winter living off savings, eating instant ramen in a duplex she’d bought back in the liquidity crunch of 2046. But it really was her house, and she really did spend some time there, living simply, and she really had sold it so she could move to outer space. All that was perfectly true, and it did not leave much for her to memorize or screw up. Which was good, because her life had not given her much reason to practice her acting skills, and she was constantly surprised by how stiff and wooden she appeared in photographs and videos other people had taken of her. Point a camera at her and she froze. So yeah, a deep, convincing cover was not something she was sure she could pull off.

And so, as her own self, she was a little piqued with the chip on Jeanette Schmidt’s shoulder. Agreeable? Really? Try a High Altitude Low Opening parachute jump into choppy coastal waters, with cartel bullets rat-a-tat-tatting from the shoreline. But here and now it was too hot to argue—too hot even to maintain her annoyance, so Alice simply, belatedly stuck out her hand and said, “It’s nice to meet you.”

It was weird, the contrast of this moment with her months in orbital combat training. She remembered Dona Obata landing a roundhouse kick on the side of her head four weeks ago. Even though Dona had been taking it slow, and wearing padded kickboxing boots, Alice had spun away on a trail of blood droplets and hit the Bubble hard, and spent the rest of the shift with an icepack clutched to her temple. How did Dona know how to move like that? A lifetime in gravity, a billion years evolving in gravity, and Dona somehow took to space like a ballerina. And Bethy! Jesus. Bethy Powell had grown up on a cattle ranch with four brothers, and it showed on the way she could wrestle and punch and knee and gouge and twist.

“Go!” the instructor would shout, and even if Alice and Bethy were twenty meters apart, Bethy would launch herself like a ball of pure aggression, and before Alice knew it she’d be snugged against the hotel’s smooth, white Bubble wall in a submission hold, struggling for breath. Every goddamn time. Against the instructors she felt a bit more competent, because they were skilled at fighting down to her level, but even so she was not a large woman, nor a particularly strong or agile one. Just very, very determined.

Two of the five initial mission candidates had been weeded out as hopeless, but Alice had been retained for training and then finally selected for the mission, either because she was still the best they had (a distant third place was still better than a distant fourth or fifth), or simply because she’d never complained. Got the shit kicked out of her every day for months and never complained, because she was a goddamn Maroon Beret and they didn’t. Not an Army Maroon Beret, but a Pararescueman—elitest of the elite.

And surely she’d learned something in the process?

“Sorry, Alice,” Bethy would say, with her slow down-under twang, then let go and drift away.

The lights in the Bubble were bright, and the windows were small, and the final three candidates spent most of every day shift in that sphere of off-white blankness, enduring bone-strengthening gravity-replacement exercises to supplement the anti-wasting drugs, and learning various zero-gravity skills. Not just zedo, but how to field-strip an XREP stunner dart pistol, how to locate the Sun and Earth when there were no visual references, how to slither silently through inflatable obstacles covered in wind chimes, and of course Alice’s favorite: how to tie back your coverall sleeves so they weren’t in the fucking way all the time. The one time she’d nearly won a fight against Dona was because Dona’s hair got caught in her zipper sleeve and she couldn’t bring her arm down to block. She’d brought her knee up instead, trapping Alice’s arm and spinning her hard against the Bubble, but not before Alice had landed a solid “practice punch” to the solar plexus. Take that, French Congo.

So many days like that. Ninety of them? It seemed impossible; when she thought back, she could only really account for maybe eighteen or twenty of those. Even harder to remember were the “nights” in the hab modules attached to the Bubble—in what would soon become the luxury suites of the Marriott Stars. From low Earth orbit the actual Sun provided fifty minutes of daylight and forty-six of darkness, over and over until you couldn’t stand it anymore, but the hotel simulated a summertime routine of fourteen-hour “days” when the interior lights were at maximum the whole time, and nine-hour “nights” when the shades were closed and the lights were dimmed. Half an hour of twilight in between, when bland, nutritious meals were served.

By convention, the night shift was private in-your-cabin time, and although most people didn’t sleep much in space, Alice sure did. And the rest of the time she was trying (and failing) to meditate, or reading books on a ruggedized tablet she’d dragged through hell and back with the Pararescuemen. But those were just trashy romance novels, not memorable, either. Buxom women getting kidnapped by suspiciously polite pirates, or falling in love with suspiciously intelligent handymen or business moguls with more free time than any real person ever had. Sometimes women falling in love with other women, not because Alice had any leanings in that direction, but just for variety’s sake in that monotonous place. Say what you like; she had expected living in outer fucking space to be a lot more exciting.

The most memorable thing about the Bubble was its smell: a weirdly antiseptic blend of air conditioners, new-car plastic, gymnasium sweat and Fresh Mountain Pine. The hab modules were the same, minus the sweat—a small mercy for which Marriott was presumably thankful, since they would probably never be able to fully clean that reek out of the Bubble.

Paramaribo also smelled of sweat, but other than that its aroma couldn’t be more different—a mélange of rotting salt marshes, food on the edge of spoiling, old-fashioned asphalt and diesel smog, and a million different flowers calling out to the hummingbirds.

Having joined Alice and Dona at the little iron-mesh table, Jeanette Schmidt ordered a margarita (which Alice hadn’t even realized was an option), and produced a little paper fan.

“I’d sell my soul if I lived here,” she said, with sweat trickling off every part of her. “For a little sphere of cool air to follow me around.”

“No buyers,” Dona answered. “Trade sanctions.”

“Ah, bullshit,” Jeanette said. “There are twelve countries under ITAR sanction, doing just fine. Somebody’s buying souls, and refining them into rocket fuel.”

“You’ve sold it already,” Alice told her. “To the sperm of Igbal Renz.”

That came out sounding darker than she’d intended, and she immediately realized she was going to have to watch that shit, because she was supposed to be just another eager colonist lining up to have space babies of her own. But Jesus, ITAR stood for International Traffic in Arms Regulations, and it meant the little nation of Suriname was illegally importing and assembling rocket parts that could be used to drop a warhead anywhere on Earth. They really could. And those parts were coming from illegal 3D printers in Mauritania and Sudan and rogue bits of the former North Korea, fed by engineering talent parked in international waters, and raw materials coming from all over Africa and South Asia.

Renz Ventures spent a lot of money in places like this. Some would say they laundered a lot of money in places like this, but the distinction hardly mattered, because you couldn’t extradite a global supply chain and put it on trial, and you couldn’t declare war on the economic renaissance these countries were enjoying. Hell, America couldn’t even declare war on the drug cartels, not really. Just shoot them up when they really, really, really crossed the line on human rights, and wait for the power vacuum to fill again next week. But the Embargo States were different: better organized, less autocratic, with a rising middle class who did not like their shit being meddled with.

And RzVz was only the most public face of the industry. Dan Beseman was up there quietly building his robotic Mars base, and that Orlov guy was . . . running an orbital fuel factory or something? Alice was embarrassingly vague on the details, except that the U.S. government had its eye on him as well, and the people in charge of Alice’s recruitment and training had made some veiled references to “additional strategic interventions” in outer space, sometime in the nearish future. And of course there was Lawrence Edgar Killian, who traveled the world in a shiny orange blimp, and controlled assets on the Moon’s south pole. The New Yorker had once run a cartoon of the Horsemen: caricatures floating in spacesuits and holding up cardboard signs. Dan Beseman’s said MARS OR BUST!!!, beneath a face that looked at once vapid and obsessive. Lawrence Killian floated beside him with an overly serene expression, a monk’s robe over his spacesuit, and a sort of steel halo riveted to the top of his space helmet. He held a sign that said GOD PUT THE MOON CLOSER. The most insulting caricature was of Igbal Renz, who was drooling, had a hypodermic needle sticking out of his arm, and somehow had an unzipped fly at the crotch of his spacesuit. His sloppily painted message said HEH. SPACE. Upside down from the three of them, a scowling Grigory Orlov, with braided epaulets on his shoulders, held a (right-side-up) sign that said PAY ME TO EXIST. The caption beneath all of them: Relax. The future is in good hands. It had gone viral on various data networks, but even after all the briefings Alice had sat through, that one little cartoon was about eighty percent of what she knew about where she was headed.

“I sold my soul, too,” she added, now, trying to sound more cheerful. “It’s the price of admission to outer space.”

“You’re talking about my eggs,” Jeanette corrected sweatily. “Yes, those are sold, along with the womb space to develop them. Although I hear Iggy’s pretty far along with his liquid-phase incubators.”

“No EMA slowing him down,” Dona said, in seeming approval.

Jeanette blinked. “EMA?”

“Uh, it’s like your Food and Drug Administration, I think. Nosy bureaucrats.”

“Ah. Well, yes. I imagine that helps, yes. Along with unlimited funding! Anyway, whatever. Thank you for letting me sit with you; you’re the only two team members I was able to track down. A lot of people are still in transit or something. Or lying low.”

“How long have you been here?” Dona asked.

“In Suriname? Two days. In Paramaribo specifically? Since this morning. I took the bus from Georgetown. I do not recommend it.”

Georgetown was across the border in Guyana, which was legally accessible via commercial flights from the United States.

“I flew in from Cuba,” Dona said, perhaps truthfully. “I do recommend that.”

Alice kept her trap shut, because she had personally taken an Air Force cargo jumper to the USS John Travolta, parked out past the continental shelf, and rode shotgun on a mismarked civilian helicopter to the outer suburb of Lelydorp, from which she’d used paper currency to hire a series of taxicabs. Chances were, the Surinamese authorities knew the U.S. had inserted somebody, but since that happened on a weekly basis, they wouldn’t find it particularly remarkable. Still, it had been dumb. American dumb: expensive and complicated and pretty much unnecessary. Immigration control here was a joke; you didn’t even need a passport from most ports of entry, and anyway Alice Kyeong was supposed to be here.

“It is nice to meet you out here in the sunshine,” Alice said, to change the subject, “but I think I can just meet everyone else in the Playa Blanca bar.”

Dona snorted at that. “Ah, yes. The beach.”

The Playa Blanca was a hotel owned by RzVz, and was where colonists and staffers checked in to await their ride to orbit. The name was a bit of a joke, as it meant “White Beach”—something Paramaribo definitely did not have. It was a town of white clapboard and red brick, with colorful metal roofs, and with grass and palm trees sprouting up from everyplace that wasn’t freshly paved. With its rusty, sun-faded charm, Paramaribo was the sort of place one might expect to find nice beaches. But no, the land seemed mostly to slope down into reeking mangrove swamps, and the occasional shoreline of muddy gravel that reminded Alice of a dozen rough HALO drops she’d made over the course of her six-year career. The hotel bar was nice, though. And cool. Perhaps the name Playa Blanca simply meant: This is where all the white people wash up. A White Beach indeed.

“Well, I wanted to get out and look at the place,” Jeanette said. “I was expecting something a bit more refined, but okay. With all the money flowing through here it should be nice in twenty years.”

“It’s not so bad here,” Alice said. “You want to see real chaos, go to Burning Man sometime. Money flows through there, too, and that hasn’t straightened it out.”

To which Jeanette replied, “Honey, I sure won’t. If things go according to plan, this town might be the last place on Earth any of us ever see. Isn’t that a strange thought?”

It was, yes. But Alice and Dona were here to make sure things didn’t go according to plan, at least in terms of Igbal Renz retaining steering control over the Esley Shade.

“There aren’t many left to meet,” Dona said. “Three of us are already in orbit.”

That surprised Alice and Jeanette both.

“Really?” Jeanette asked. “Which three?”

“Nonna Rostov of the Russian Federation, who is some sort of materials scientist; Saira Batra, who’s a mathematician; and then some Argentine engineer whose name I forget.”

“Is it Pelu Figueroa?”

“Yes, that’s her. The three of them caught a commercial cargo throw up to low Earth orbit yesterday, from Ascension Island, in the South Atlantic. I’m not sure why. Here at our launch site, we’re meeting Elizabeth Powell, Malagrite Aagesen, and Rachel Lee. That last one is a doctor, I believe.”

“What kind of doctor?” Jeanette asked.

Dona shrugged. “No specialty listed, so I’m going to guess tube monitor.”

That was another joke, kind of. Over the past decade or so, telerobotic medicine and nanorobotic medicine and AI diagnostics had sort of converged, and now there were more and more things treated in “the tubes” or “the barrels” or “the coffins” by, basically, fully autonomous robotic jellyfish. The economic fallout was hitting certain kinds of doctors very hard, and some of them responded by filling the on-site physician quota at a tube farm. Others met the challenge by quitting or changing careers or committing suicide. Or, perhaps, fleeing to outer space.

“There’s a spaceport on Ascension Island?” Alice asked.

“Horizontal takeoff only, but yes. Since July.”

“Where are you two getting all this information?” Alice demanded suddenly. “Was there an informatic I was supposed to download or something?”

“You’re supposed to be monitoring the online crew manifest,” Jeanette told her, not unkindly. “How do you know you’re still scheduled to fly?”

“What do you . . . They can remove me from the flight? For what?”

“Of course they can. Somebody higher priority can bump you at any time. Or they could shift the weight allowance. How much stuff are you bringing?”

“Just e-books and personal effects. About six kilograms altogether.”

Some rather interesting personal effects, courtesy of the Space Force and the Central Intelligence Agency, but all of it could pass through an AI luggage scanner without so much as a blip.

“Really? No candy or booze? What are you going to trade? What are you going to do?”

“Hmm. Look stupid?” Alice didn’t know if this conversation was helping or hurting her cover, so she shut up again.

“You still have time to buy some of that,” Jeanette said. “I’ll help you.”


“Really, I think you should.”

“Okay.” Alice relented, partly because she didn’t want to arouse suspicion, partly because Jeanette seemed like a genuinely nice person, partly because there were still thirty hours to kill, and partly because it actually did sound like a good idea. Funny that she hadn’t really thought about the personal, practical side of all this: actually leaving Earth. Actually living on a space colony. Actually blending in by way of actually doing real work up there, and sharing living space with real people, until she and Dona and Bethy figured out when and how they were going to strike.

“This isn’t something we want you to rush,” President Tompkins had told the three of them in the Oval Office, over mugs of Kona coffee laced hard with Kentucky bourbon. “And it certainly isn’t something we want you to botch.”

Laurent Patenaude, the mustachioed president of France, had added, “Get them to trust you before you slip in the knife. It’s the only way, really.”

Something changed in Jeanette’s face as Alice thought these thoughts, and Alice worried again that she might just possibly be the worst spy the human race had ever seen. No poker face! None!

But fortunately, Jeanette read something altogether different into Alice’s features. She asked: “Honey, are you scared? I know I am.”

“I’m not scared,” Alice said truthfully. Very little in this world truly frightened her, and some spoiled, sex-crazed trillionaire certainly didn’t.

But Jeanette drew a deep breath of the city’s stifling air and repeated, “I sure am. You know, when I was twelve years old, my father took me on an amusement park ride called the Slingshot. You had to wait in line for, like, three hours. They strapped you into this ball and cranked it back on giant bungee cords and just shot you up in the air, as high as the tallest buildings in Dallas. You could look down at the giant air conditioners on their roofs! But you know what the worst part was? Waiting in that line. Watching that ball go up in the air, over and over again, trailing screams of terror behind it. Dad and I nearly chickened out a dozen times, but we were also egging each other on, and even then I knew I wanted to be an astronaut. I’d always wanted to be an astronaut, and I figured, how am I ever going to strap myself in a rocket ship if I can’t ride a damn amusement park ride? That’s what settled it for me. That’s what kept me in that line, and ultimately I think it’s what kept my Dad there as well. The ride itself was really short. Just two seconds of gee force, two seconds of weightlessness, and then several minutes of pointless bouncing and spinning while they cranked the thing back down again. It was anticlimactic. It’s the waiting that’ll kill you.”

Alice could see a hint of fear—more than a hint—in Jeanette’s eyes. Now she wasn’t thinking about her sweaty bus ride across Suriname and into Paramaribo. She wasn’t thinking about the margarita in her hand or the night she was going to spend on clean hotel sheets. She was thinking about sitting in a thin tube of, basically, fiberglass, with a million pounds of thrust behind her, flaring out in a three-thousand-degrees-Celsius tower of flame and smoke, and absolute nothingness on the other side of that wall.

And although Alice had made that trip three separate times already, along with the fiery reentries to bring her back down, and fancied she had already mostly gotten over any nervousness and was solidly professional about the whole thing, she realized that attitude wasn’t going to sit well with Jeanette Schmidt. To keep up appearances, Alice was going to have to show some (fake) vulnerability here.

“Okay, maybe I’m a little bit scared,” she said, dredging up some of her feelings from that first trip to the Marriott Stars. Her first HALO jump was actually a lot scarier, so she thought about that, too. Ten-thousand-meter exit, nine-thousand-meter freefall, a thousand-meter arresting glide on a minimal parafoil chute, and then buckles-off and a ten-meter drop into water. That was broad daylight and clear skies, with a glassy-flat reservoir as the landing target; every step measured and monitored and the drop coach speaking calmly through her headset the whole time. And yet, the fatality rate for first-timers was well north of one percent, and the rate of serious injuries was closer to twenty percent. It was like stepping calmly into a car accident.

“Yes, yes, we’re all properly afraid,” Dona said dismissively. “But I’m thinking about something else. It occurs to me to wonder why colonists Batra, Figueroa, and Rostov were taken up ahead of schedule, and on a cargo flight. What’s the hurry? Unless RizzVizz are shifting things around on the manifest.”

“What’s your point?” Alice asked, with genuine annoyance. Here she was, trying to shore up her cover story, and here Dona was just walking right on over it. Talking way too close to the troubling facts.

“My point is, I don’t like it,” Dona said. “It smells bad. It gives me cause to worry how secure our own seats really are, or how professionally this project is being run.”

And then Alice realized that Dona was actually trying to share operational insights with her. They were undercover, yes, and could not speak freely, so Dona had to make herself sound like an annoyed tourist rather than a hired assassin. But the distinction was surprisingly moot: What if our flight is canceled? What if we don’t get to go? Could months of planning go down in flames because an entry in a spreadsheet cell had changed? Esley Shade Station supposedly had enough emergency transports parked in LEO to get everyone back to Earth (though probably hungry and thirsty and bored and stinking to high heaven), but there was only one regular crew ferry, and it held twelve people and came to Earth every ten weeks. So what would happen if, for example, Alice and Dona got bumped to the next mission, and Bethy Powell got to Esley two and a half months ahead of them?

Too much opportunity for someone to screw up, or for someone to get smart and figure out that not all of their colonists were legit. If this mission were an outright assault, the Space Force would be handling it. This was something slower and quieter. But no, that didn’t mean they had all spring and summer to get it wrapped up. And it opened up an even more serious possibility: that Bethy might secure the Esley Shade on her own, leaving the government of New Zealand in charge of things, with France and the USA forced to deal at arm’s length, along with the other four Coalition nations. From the point of view of the President, the Department of Defense and the CIA, that would be nearly as bad as leaving the Shade in Igbal’s hands.

“Suriname is noted for its stability and high ethical standards,” Jeanette offered wryly.

“Mmm.” Dona was not amused by that.

“Well, is there anything we can actually do?” Alice asked.

Dona shrugged. “Probably not. But until we’re actually on that crew shuttle, spiraling out and away, we’re not really secure.”

“Hmm. Great.”

Changing the subject again, Jeanette asked Alice, “So you’ve been to Burning Man, huh? Was that the festival or the town?”

“Both, actually,” Alice answered. “My mother dragged me to the last three festivals, when I was in grade school. But I was talking about the town, where she’s a founding resident.”

“Oh. Well, that’s kind of neat. Are you and your mother close?”

Alice snorted. “Ah, no. She’s crazy.”

“Honey, everyone’s mother is crazy. Mine was a full-time homemaker with a PhD and a whole shelf of psychiatric medicines. How about you, Dona?”

Still unamused, Dona said, “A seamstress, back when that was still a human job. My father was her postman. Is it crazy that they put three children through college in Europe? I don’t know what they were thinking. My mother’s a saint. I’m sorry yours isn’t.”

“Oh, now don’t be a buzzkill,” Jeanette said, again not unkindly. “We’re just making conversation, here. Nothing serious intended.”

“They’re still in Africa, with no children to look after them. I could get them admitted into France, but they refuse to budge.”

“I’m sure they’re lovely people.”

“Thank you. They are.”

“And now you’re leaving the planet,” Jeanette said, her face lighting up with sympathy. “From space, you really can’t help them. And here I am making jokes.”

Alice didn’t know how much of what Dona was saying was true and how much was bullshit cover story, and for the moment, she didn’t care, because it was, again, treading too close to operationally sensitive areas. Dona wasn’t really moving to outer space, and chances were her parents didn’t even know she was visiting there at all. Did she have fake parents she could make a show of contacting? If not, then this whole subject was problematic, and offhand the only way Alice could think of to derail it was to throw some shade on it.

“Oh, boo-hoo,” she said. “We’re all leaving people behind.”

“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” Jeanette said after a pause. To Alice’s surprise, the look on Jeanette’s face actually did make her feel bad. Question: Why you gotta be like that? Answer: Because I’m a hired assassin, not a hired friend. And like a good assassin she doubled down and pressed onward.

“I’m serious. We’re leaving a whole planet behind, all of us, with the intention of not coming back. With the contractual obligation of bearing that pervert’s children. Or somebody’s. It’s a big step, yes, and now is not the time to start crying about it.”

“He’s not a pervert,” Dona said, snapping out of it. Getting back into character, where she belonged. “He’s a great man.”

To which Jeanette replied, “Oh, I think he might be a bit of a pervert.”

And then somehow they were laughing, all three of them.

After that they shut up for a while and just drank their cool drinks, and watched the pedestrians and drones and robots and trucks and cars and bicycles go by.

“Such a busy place,” Dona said finally.

And that was true: Suriname had started with one tiny spaceport, and then it was three, and then the three had merged into a whole city of airfields and launch pads and offshore platforms, and as of last year this little country was handling forty percent of all the off-Earth traffic. Forty percent! Next year it might be fifty, with the bulk of the growth coming directly out of the hides of the U.S. and Australian and French aerospace industries. That was the amount of traffic that skirted ITAR rules, and every other sort of rule except the rule of money. And the Four Horsemen—Igbal Renz, Dan Beseman, Grigory Orlov, and Lawrence Edgar Killian—controlled the vast majority of that.

The idea made Alice shudder. Even reckless, heedless, emotionally stunted Alice, yes, because that was way too much power in way too few hands, and there was no telling where it might lead. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, and perverts could buy whole shiploads of willing brides and blot out the fucking sun, then yes, Alice was proud to be a part of the governmental response.

Ostensibly, the Esley Shade was about solar energy. ESL1 Shade Station was a giant factory and research laboratory, turning asteroidal material (basically, rocks) into habitat modules and spaceship parts, and that took tremendous amounts of power. Esley Shade Station was also constantly making more material for the Esley Shade, too. The larger it got, the more material it took to add another meter to its diameter, and also the more susceptible it was to getting holes and tears from micrometeroroids, which needed to be patched with additional material. So people seemed to think it was growing more slowly these days, but as the Space Force dudes had explained to her over and over, it was the diameter that was growing more slowly. The area was growing faster than ever.

All that would be scary enough if it were just out in empty space, but of course Bigballs had put the shade squarely between the Earth and Sun. To help cool the planet, he said. As a gift to the people of Earth, he said. But the fact was, by tipping the shade this way and that way, he could steer it with light pressure from the Sun, and decide which portions of Earth would have their sunlight reduced.

“It’s an instrument of climate warfare,” the President had said, “in the hands of a known drug user.”

So yes, Paramaribo was a busy place, and yes, that mattered.

“We seem to have a visitor,” Jeanette said suddenly, looking up at something behind Alice’s head. Dona was looking that direction as well, so Alice turned her head just in time to see a buzzing microdrone the size of a hockey puck come whizzing to a stop a few meters from their table.

In a tinny yet creepily natural robotic voice, it said, “Dona Obata. Jeanette Schmidt. Alice Kyeong. Please acknowledge your identity.”

“Acknowledged,” Jeanette said.

More cautiously, Dona asked, “Are you from Renz Ventures?”

“Yes,” the drone replied. “However, I’m not authorized to give any additional information without confirmed identities.”

Sighing, Dona said, “All right. Acknowledged.”

Annoyed, Alice said, “You know damn well who we are.” By now, this little puck could have matched their faces against any number of global biometric databases. That was probably how it knew to approach them in the first place. But it was no more intelligent than a doorbell, and there was no point arguing with it, so she said, “Acknowledged.”

The drone chimed. “Thank you. Passengers Dona Obata, Jeanette Schmidt, and Alice Kyeong are requested to move to their assigned launch site within three hours.”

Jeanette did try to argue with it, then, by asking, “Right now? Three hours? Why?”

It replied, “Launch schedules have been adjusted, spaceport wide. Passengers Dona Obata, Jeanette Schmidt, and Alice Kyeong are given three hours to collect belongings, perform personal hygiene, and travel to their assigned launch site. Pre-boarding procedures commence at 1:50 p.m. local time and will not be suspended or delayed.”

“That’s more than a full day early,” Jeanette protested.

“Please acknowledge receipt of this message,” the drone said.

“Acknowledged,” all three of them said, in annoyed near-unison.

The drone chimed again, then retreated into the flow of traffic on the street.

“They could have just called,” Jeanette said.

“Someone’s checking up on us,” Dona said, looking genuinely worried. “Something’s not right. They want us in orbit early, too, which means the crew ferry’s leaving Transit Point Station ahead of schedule.”

“Which means what?” Alice asked, not following her reasoning.

“Could be embargo stuff,” Dona speculated. “Renz Ventures is afraid of outside forces interfering with Suriname’s internal affairs.”

If that was true, Alice thought wryly, they were right to be afraid. However, the administration of ITAR sanctions sat largely with the United Nations, and there was no guarantee they didn’t have some ham-handed, ground-level operations of their own in the works. Or, hell, even the mammoth U.S. government—five million bureaucrats, and growing!—with its overlapping jurisdictions and spirit of empowerment, might have dozens of operations going on that the President didn’t specifically authorize or know about. Banking investigators, tax investigators, the customs service . . . the list was endless.

“That could fuck us hard,” Alice said.

“Indeed,” Dona agreed.

“Well, let’s get going!” Jeanette piped up.

So they took a final sip from their drinks, and slapped way too many paper currency bills down on the table, because who was going to need them after this? Then they rushed out into the street, waving for a taxi.

And now that the launch was only a few hours away, and controlled by these yahoos rather than the U.S. Space Force, and Alice was headed not for a secret training base in low Earth orbit, but for a dangerous mission in the blackness of outer space, far from everything she’d ever known or loved, she did have to acknowledge that yeah, she actually was a little bit afraid. Well, damn.

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