Theo’s Ectoderm tightened, darkening reflexively. It was the eighth day on the Honeymoonlet, and that tone was dangerous. He turned.
Molly drifted into the flight deck like a descending angel of death.
“What have you been doing in the shop?” She was a beautiful sight, mostly, clad in her bridal Layer, an intricate lace-pattern of black and white that wrapped her long form in shifting, tantalizingly curved shadows and turned her eyes into deep pools of night. In the center of the ice-cave that served as their flight deck, she looked like a fairy queen.
Not one of the good ones.
“I don’t know, Molls,” Theo said. “What have I been doing in the shop?”
“How would I know?” she said. “I was going to run some fine assayage on rare earth traces, and it’s a mess: tools and supplies everywhere, I can’t find half of what I need, and why are you messing with my chemicals anyway?”
“Molly, how would I have even been in the shop?” Theo asked, he thought, reasonably. “I’ve been on flight duty the last four hours. Besides, I’m the engineering jock. You’re the chem witch.”
“So, what, you’re saying it was me?” She folded her arms.
“I’m saying I don’t know anything about it.”
“Well, there’s only two things you could mean,” said Molly, her voiced rising. “You forgot messing up the workshop or you think I did! And there were footprints in the tunnel snow, Theo. Footprints.”
“And I promised I wouldn’t do that again,” Theo said, his voice hardening. Molly glared at him. Finally, he said, “Look, I don’t know what happened: let me clean it up, and if it’s my fault, I’ll make sure it never happens again.”
Molly raised an eyebrow. “And you understand why it can’t?”
Theo clamped down on his temper. One mistake—hell, it hadn’t even been that dangerous!—and she was treating him like an idiot five-year old. “Molly, even in my family we didn’t leave tools loose. I’m not stupid, okay?”
Her expression softened a bit. “I know you aren’t, that’s why it’s so,” she groped for words, “maddening to see you act like it.”
He drifted over and took her hands. “Soon, we’ll have our own Family Ship,” he said. “And we can arrange her, cabin by cabin. Come on. You want to take flight while I go clean it up?”
“Only interesting thing is that we’re about at closest approach to that Earthcorp heavy hauler. Half a million klicks. Otherwise, massdriver and seismics all nominal.”
Molly snorted. “A bubblehead transport? Have they called us up to check out the freaks, yet?”
Theo snorted, relieved at the change of subject. “They’re ignoring us. You know, my brother Layered his face like a rotting corpse once and sent a fake distress call to a bubblehead ship? Had their bridge crew vomiting in micrograv.”
Molly giggled. “At least it broke the monotony. Can you imagine being out here without an Ectoderm?”
Theo shook his head. He really couldn’t.
In 2042, the Ectoderm had opened the solar system to first-generation miners like their parents. It had replaced his own skin right after birth and grown with him all his life. It allowed people to work in space the way men should be able to work: able to feel the equipment they used, without the constant fear of puncturing a suit. With Ectoderm, all you needed was a rebreather mask. It provided the pressure humans needed to live in vacuum, regulated body temperature through superconduction, and shielded against harmful radiation. Incredibly tough and elastic, it forced human muscles to stretch against it, so they didn’t atrophy in microgravity.
But it was a permanent modification, and Earther bubbleheads were very attached to their skins. Why didn’t they stay where it was safe to keep them?
“I could call them. Confirm their ideas of strange Ecto perversions,” Molly said.
“Oh, no,” said Theo. “I’m keeping your strange Ecto perversions all to myself.” He caressed her back, sliding his hand downward. “Want to go for a walk outside, later?”
“Later. Scoot. And clean up your mess.”
Theo kissed her and flew off through the web of the Rock’s tunnels.
Theo leaped through the drilled tunnels of ice and ore that laced the Honeymoonlet. It seemed empty. A week ago, during the claimgather, this rock had swarmed with as many people as he’d ever seen in his life. The tunnels had been full of Ectos, coring and drilling and carving. Every day had been like a celebration: Molly was really going to be his wife: he was going to live with her, they’d have their own Ship.
Claimgathers were how Ectos in the Belt made their real living. Individual Family Ships mined out surface deposits, along with enough ice to keep themselves going. But a rich strike, worth sending the whole asteroid back to Earth—meant resources, manpower, and expertise that no single Family Ship could possess.
A family that found such a rock sent out a claimcall. Every Family Ship on a favorable vector responded, doing a share of the work for a share of the find: setting up the gossamer mylar solar furnaces to smelt the ore, the thorium reactor to power it, and the huge massdriver to hurl the slag away from the Rock, driving it sunward. It was a celebration: a break from the long, lonely life of prospecting. But for young Ectos who were courting, it was more.
They called it the Honeymoonlet: piloting the claim home to metal-hungry Earth, that would turn the treasure of the outer planets into the technology the Ectos needed to survive. Their payment was the right to buy from the proceeds their very own Family Ship: their key to mining the asteroids for themselves. Or perhaps the Trojans of Jupiter, or Saturn’s Rings. Bringing up their own children in the free vastness of space.
Theo’s face tightened. How many more fights would they have before Molly stopped looking for things to get mad about? The first fight had been about a snowball.
On Theo’s Family Ship, when you were on an asteroid you knew well, you could relax a little. A week ago, he’d thrown a snowball at his new wife. He’d even missed. Molly had exploded.
In her family, asteroids were treated as always dangerous, all the time. She’d accused him of risking both of their Ectoderm. Of course, durable as Ectoderm was, it wasn’t perfect: a single real tear in it would kill them dead as any Earther. But nothing cold enough to cryoshock Ectoderm could have survived in the Honeymoonlet’s pressurized tunnels. That didn’t matter to Molly. You did not touch asteroid ice. With. Bare. Ectoderm. Now she was accusing him of lying, and he hadn’t even been barefoot in the shop.
He’d loved Molly for two years, eagerly awaiting each new message, each vidfile. Treasuring the rare occasions their Family Ships had been close enough for realtime vidcalls.
Living with Molly was different from loving her.
Molly’s sudden voice in his earphones nearly made him hit a wall. “Theo?” She sighed. “I haven’t said thanks for what you did for Uncle Rocky yet.”
Oh. “Didn’t do much good, did it?”
“You did try, though. I should have . . .”
“Hey. It wouldn’t have made a difference if it had been you.”
“Probably not. Hurry back.” She signed off.
Well. Maybe no fight after all? Thanks, Dad.
In the glittering ovoid Reception Hall, carved from ice and faceted like the inside of a huge diamond, Theo’s father had taken him aside for a last chat. “Remember, son. For men, the operative word in Family Ship tends to be ‘Ship.’ You have to keep the Ship running. For women, it tends to be ‘Family.’ You have to keep the Family together.” Theo had listened carefully. It was quite possible that he would never be in the same room with his parents again.
“Always remember you need each other. If you work together, you have a Family and a Ship. Work against each other—put Family in the way of Ship, or the other way around—soon you’ll have neither.”
Theo glanced at Molly, dancing with her bridesmaids, reveling in the crowd. It was hard to imagine, but . . . “What if she works against me?”
His father smiled. “Then you have to work with her.” He put his hand on Theo’s shoulder. “Even when you know she’s wrong. No matter what. It isn’t easy. Don’t for a moment think it will be. It’s harder than drilling osmium ore.”
“You and Mom always made it look easy.”
His father snorted. “Which was hardest of all. Children need to know they’re safe. So we hid it from you kids; hissed our words of anger while you slept. But we always showed each other we cared.”
“How do I show her I care? About family?”
His father looked past the gaily-Layered partygoers. Toward a small exit. “Her Uncle Jurgen is down that tunnel. Sneaked out that way with a bottle of hundred.”
Theo hesitated. “Uncle Rocky? Dad . . .”
“You asked,” said his father. “The man’s still her blood, whatever else he is. Thinks he isn’t wanted. You could do something about it.”
He isn’t wanted. “All right.”
Rocky was easy to find. Theo heard the moans before he saw the man, and realized that 100% ethanol wasn’t the only drug Rocky had on him. Judas, Rocky, it’s called AloneTime for a reason. Disgusted, he waited for the man to finish.
Non-addictive recreational drugs were common among Ectos. AloneTime induced orgasm for those who lacked sexual partners. Theo waited until Rocky was finished, then rounded the corner noisily.
Rocky wore no Layer: just bare Ectoderm and grubby shorts. Normally, at a claimgather, Ectos showed off flamboyant, bright color schemes. Rocky didn’t want to be noticed. No. Jurgen. “Rocky” was what you called an Ecto you didn’t know. And didn’t want to. Theo suppressed a shudder. Jurgen had piloted a Honeymoonlet once . . .
“Hey. Jurgen. Uh, Molly was wondering where you’d gone.”
Rocky peered at him. “No, she wasn’t, kid,” he scoffed, voice bearing no trace of slur. “She hasn’t even noticed. And anyone who has,” he waved the bottle, “knows where I am.”
“Come on, Jurgen. It’s a claimgather. Everyone’s here. It’s a long time between them.”
“Not long enough,” whispered Rocky. His head jerked up. “You think I’m in here because I’m afraid of them?”
Shouldn’t you be? Rocky and his wife had lost their Honeymoonlet. The whole Belt knew the story. “No,” lied Theo. “I don’t . . .”
“Well, I’m not,” snarled Rocky. “I’m afraid of what I might do to them.” Then, with frightening speed, Rocky pushed off and took Theo by the arms. “You watch yourself, boy! The Hinderleyders are here. What they did to me, they can do to you!” Rocky’s breath smelled like a distillery’s open grave. He relaxed his grip. “I know what you think. I know what it looked like. But this ain’t about me. It’s about you. About Molly. They want another thick cut of salvage.”
It looked like you and your bride went on a drug-bender and let your mass driver shred itself, Theo thought. Because that’s what happened. Rocky’s wife had left him: sworn he’d forced her, but few believed her. They’d trashed twenty families’ hard work. For drugs. An Earthcorp ship had rescued them. Been awarded half the Honeymoonlet’s value as salvage. Cost the profits of the whole claimgather. And lost their chance at a Family Ship.
Show her you care about family.
Rocky was her family.
“We don’t have to relive this, Rocky,” he said, gently. The nickname slipped out, but Rocky didn’t even notice. “It was fifteen years ago.” But no one forgot carelessness in the Belt. Couldn’t afford to.
“The distress call was a deepfake,” Rocky whispered. “We never sent it.”
Right. Someone deepfaked you begging for rescue, complete with all your Honeymoonlet’s authentication codes. And he blamed the Hinderleyders. Well, why not one of the richest families in the Belt? “Come on, Jurgen. Molly wants to see you. So do her folks.”
Rocky sagged. “Yeah. Sure. I got it, kid.” Rocky let go. “Wouldn’t want to spoil the party. While it lasts.” He followed Theo back into the huge chamber.
Drifting through the now-dark Reception Hall, toward a softly glowing, deep infrared tunnel, Theo muttered, “Sorry, Rocky,” into his breather. They’d found his note the next day. His bare footprints in the cee-snow-2, trudging away from the Ships. No one went looking for him. Even his parents’ grief had looked . . . spent. Like it had run its course long ago.
With a gesture, Theo brought up the lights in the shop, and stared.
Molls hadn’t been kidding. The contents of the shop were clamped to the work rack in no order. Hypercompressed air tanks, glassine cylinders, chemicals Theo hardly recognized, plus coils of fiberoptic cable and heavy-duty hoses. He hadn’t done any of this. What would anyone do with all these things?
But Molly hadn’t, either. Or said she hadn’t. Was it possible his new bride was playing a practical joke? Or, less funny thought: that she was completely delusional. And there in the tunnel: a footprint. My big toe isn’t longer than my second toe.
Molly’s hysterical voice cut through his thoughts like a shard of frozen oxygen. “Theo? Theo! Get up here! I can’t stop it! I can’t . . .”
“Molly!” He’d never heard any Ecto so panicked. “What’s happened? Report!”
“We’re broadcasting! Look at it!” she shrieked.
Theo fumbled for his uphone. It’s the Disaster Frequency, he thought, dumbly.
He stared at his own face. On the flight deck. It was slack, eyes unfocused. It spoke in his voice. “. . . repeating. This is Nadjek family Rock, Registry 2589-P, sending Mayday. We, uh . . . fucked up real good, I’m afraid.” Behind him, Molly giggled, eyes wide and glassy. “Partying kinda hard: honeymoonlet, y’know. And uh . . . I dunno exactly how, but it . . . looks like we dumped the thorium core.”
“Those big levers were so pretty,” breathed Molly’s image. “And you pulled them all…”
“Yeah, my fault,” Theo’s image said, stupidly. “Not Moll’s. So. We’re on battery power, but we’re gonna lose it soon. So we, uh. We really need some help. Please.”
We’re not sending this.
But they were.
Theo frantically tried to shut down the transmission. Then to begin one. Nothing happened. How could he stop it? The antenna was on the surface, kilometers away.
He raced through the dark tunnels. Then the pale face of a serious officer in an Earth-cut uniform on his own ship’s flight deck cut in. “Rock 2589-P,” the man said. “This is Sinoran Combine Heavy Expedience en route to Earth. We are 450 k-klicks out, matching course and speed for intercept and rescue. Please confirm, your vessel without power and you request rescue.”
Theo scrabbled at his unresponsive uphone. “No, we are not!” he screamed.
His image nodded. “Yeah,” it said, sadly. “We’re . . . in a lot of trouble, here.”
The officer nodded. “Don’t worry, Nadjek family. We’re here to help. ETA sixty-eight minutes. Please prepare to welcome our boarding team, and have a manifest ready for calculation of salvage while you wait.” A faint, triumphant smile creased his face. “Expedience out.”
The transmission cut. The Rock’s lights went with it. Theo’s uphone winked out.
Molly’s face was a shattered ghost in the pale glow of the flight deck’s emergency chemlights. She jumped as Theo cycled the door with a clang of manual bolts. Even the power to the doors was gone.
“Theo,” she gulped. “What is happening?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I couldn’t . . . when the transmission went out. You tried to stop it?”
“What do you think?” she screamed. “I even cut the power to the antenna. And it just kept going! This is like a nightmare. Why can’t I wake up?” She clutched at him. “Is what you . . . I mean, it . . . said, true? Is the reactor down?”
“Not just that,” said Theo. “We don’t even have batteries. And look.” He held up his dead uphone. “What about yours? Does it work?”
Molly snatched her own uphone from her belt. Dead.
“This isn’t possible.” Then he remembered. We never sent it. They’ll do it to you, too. “Oh, holy shit,” he breathed. “Rocky.”
Theo’s mind raced. “Back to the shop, now!” Without waiting for a response, he leapt for the door, and Molly followed.
Hypercompressed air, glassine, chemicals, fiberoptic cable, hoses, and metastable metallic hydrogen slugs. Wait, were all of those there before? “What is all this for?”
“What are you asking me for?” shouted Molly. “You got them out!”
“I didn’t!” He reached for a plasma torch. “Check the tools for charge!”
“Just do it!”
The plasma torch was dead. It had been fully charged when they set out, just a week ago. It hadn’t been used.
Impossible. Molecular distortion batteries lasted for months. But it was gone. Just like our emergency power. He checked a drilling laser. Drained. A seismometer. Drained.
It was as if Theo could see himself from the outside. No way for us to transmit. That confession of drugged incompetence is expanding through the system at the speed of light. Rocky was telling the truth, all this time. We’re going to lose the Rock, our futures, and no one will lift a whisper in our defense, because all they will ever know is that we cost them their fortunes.
A foot scraped on ice.
Molly shrieked. Theo twisted in the air. “What was that?” He raised the dead sonic probe he was holding. It was useless, but heavy. In the dim, chemical lighting, every corner hid gelid shadows.
“Ow,” a voice said. “Quiet down, willya? My head hurts, and we ain’t got time for this.”
Theo’s mouth gaped. “R-Rocky?”
“Yeah, kid. It’s me.” Rocky stepped into view carrying a huge cylinder his own size. “We don’t have much time. They’ve shut you down. Nanoplague. All through your circuitry, now. Tried to stop it, but there’s too much shit scattered around this Rock after a claimgather. They slipped in a trojan horse.”
“Uncle Rocky?” Molly was halfway between screaming and tears. “What the hell is going on?”
Rocky grunted. “They’re coming for you,” he said. “Just like they did for me and . . . me and Justine.” His face twisted as he said his ex-wife’s name. “Like I told you, kid. The Hinderleyders. They were there.”
“What did they do to us?”
“I gotta explain it again?” said Rocky. “The Hinderleyders left something behind. Looked like scrap, prob’ly. You fired off the massdriver, it started spreading. A plague of nanobots with just one purpose: infiltrate every piece of electrical equipment. Then it jacked your antenna and sent that deepfake. Your codes are hardwired into it, so everyone knows it’s really you. Then it blocks the power. Their Earthcorp partners salvage this Rock, take 50%. They’ll split it with the Hinderleyders. You get no Family Ship, and blackballed from claimgathers forever. Your names a stain until you die.”
“How do you know?” Molly howled.
“Followed the money,” said Rocky. “when did the Hinderleyders get so rich? When did Sinoran Combine? Fifteen years ago. No proof, of course. But it’s the only thing that makes sense. I have had the time to think it over.”
Fifteen years, Theo thought. Fifteen years, and no way to prove what was done to him.
“They’ll keep you in a nice stateroom while they clean the Rock of any evidence. The nanos are probably gone already: self-destructed. Except maybe some in your reactor to stop you getting any power back. By the time you get to Earth, “proof” of your debauchery will be planted. The story will be all over the Belt.”
“And you stayed . . . here? Faked suicide? Why?” asked Molly.
“Like I told Theo,” said Rocky, a wild light showing in his eyes. “The Hinderleyders. They got me. They’re not getting you.”
Molly looked at Theo in outrage. “You knew about this?”
Rocky spoke. “Molly, don’t blame Theo. I was even drunker than usual. Just crazy old Rocky, spouting the same shit he’s talked for fifteen years . . .”
“I don’t care!” screamed Molly. “You should have told me!”
Theo stammered, “Molly, I didn’t . . .”
“Shut up.” Molly’s voice was liquid nitrogen. “Well, Rocky, what’s the plan? Did you have one, or was it just to watch us go down like you did? So you could finally have someone on your side?”
Rocky’s face hardened. “I’ve planned this for fifteen years. And it wasn’t to assuage my fucking feelings. I had bottles for that. Anyway, couldn’t just build an emergency beacon. That damned nanoplague would just drain it dry. So I built this.” He turned and retrieved his monstrous cylinder, something like the barrel of an artillery piece, black and open at one end, with a crude lever near the bulging tip.
“I was waiting.” Rocky said. “Recorded the ‘distress call’ they planted. And you guys trying to stop it, too.” He drew out his uphone. “Of course, that’s drained, now. But.” He opened a hidden compartment in the tube and slipped it inside. “This is a signal rocket. No battery. Metallic hydrogen-fueled and activated by this mechanical lever. Too fast to intercept.
“Launch this outside, and it accelerates for a thousand k-klicks. Then the flywheel generator triggers the beacon. Mechanical power, so it can’t be drained. It’ll scream its signal all the way to Ceres. And when the Ectos find it, they’ll know—they’ll all know—what the Hinderleyders and their Earthcorp friends tried to do to you.”
The steel band constricting Theo’s heart eased just a bit. “Holy shit, Rocky. You’ve . . . you’ve saved us.”
“If it works,” Molly whispered. “We have to check it out. This is our one shot.”
“What would we check it out with, Molls? We don’t have any instruments.”
She licked her lips. “The nearest airlock is . . .” she hesitated. The Rock was a big place.
Theo racked his brain. “It’s through the mass driver core, and . . .”
“No! Through Reception Hall and out the original core tunnel.”
“Right, let’s go.” He reached for the rocket. There was a scrabbling . . .
“I’m afraid not.” The cold, amplified voice echoed off the icy walls. The drone hovered in the tunnel leading out of the shop. Its black, bullet-shaped body, about the size of a man’s chest, was studded with openings: jets and sensors. A dozen segmented tentacles extended to grip the walls. There was no way past it.
“Three of you,” said the drone. “Unexpected. In any case, you’re going to stay right here for the next hour. Once we dock, everything can be . . . simplified.”
“That’s it,” whispered Rocky. “The plague-carrier.”
Theo kicked off the nearest wall, slowly. The drone wasn’t that big. The laser corer in the clamps might not have power, but it was still a big, heavy piece of . . .
The drone turned and spat a puff of compressed gas. A ragged hole appeared in the corer’s housing. “Stay where you are,” the voice said, calmly. “We’d prefer to have you alive. The living are easier to blame. But we can always make it look like suicide. Or you can actually commit suicide.” Another three spits of gas, much softer, and three bright blue ovoid motes spun out, tumbling slowly in the air. “Overdoses of AloneTime. It’ll be fun. Might even be seen as honorable.”
Theo couldn’t speak. Molly said, “Theo, what do we do?”
That’s what I was going to ask. They both looked at Rocky. He met their eyes, his face pale. His arms tightened on the rocket.
“Let it go, Jurgen,” said the voice.
“Outthought me again,” said Rocky, his voice flatter than the machine’s. “And you can’t let me live. Someone would find the coincidences just a bit too much. But once you get rid of me, anything they say will just be drug-addled excuses.” He took a deep breath. “Well, fuck you. I’ve had more than enough of my life.” He whipped up the rocket and reversed it, aiming the nozzle at the drone. “Eat this.”
“Rocky, NO!” shouted Theo. Rocky pulled the lever.
Theo grabbed Molly and jumped for the shelter of a tool locker. Fire and thunder erupted in a blinding roar. Heat flooded the chamber, painful even through Ectoderm. His closed eyelids shone bright yellow. The storm of sound scoured everything else away, and his spine itched, anticipating a stabbing wash of flame . . .
After an eternity, the cavern went dark. Gut churning, Theo opened his eyes.
Blobs of water drifted in microgravity, blasted free of cracked and polished ice. The drone was a twisted, half-melted spiderweb splashed into the wall. It twitched brokenly. And Rocky . . .
“Oh, God,” Theo choked, leaping forward.
Rocky’s body had been driven into the ice wall. His Ectoderm had been burned away by the heat of the rocket’s skin, blood and plasma oozing from the singed meat that pulled away from blackened bones. His eyes were blistered, his ribs caved in where the nose of the rocket had crushed him.
Incredibly, the man’s eyes fluttered open. They stared out, burnt and unseeing. “S-sorry, kid,” he gulped. “Couldn’t think. Anything else. Had.” He twitched and moaned. “Had all these ideas. How to fight ‘em. Laid it all out.” He nodded to the workbench, mercifully untouched by the firehose of plasma. “No time. But you’ll. Figure it. Fight ‘em.”
Fight them? With no rocket? No power?
“Rocky, what do we do?” The words were a whisper.
“But if y’don’t,” Rocky went on, “R’member this. My fault.” He trailed off in a bloody cough. “My. Fault,” he said, fighting for every word, “was not. Losing. The Rock. My Fault. Wasted. The Life. I Had. But Maybe. If You. Learn.” He drew a breath. “Not Wasted. Love Her. Fight.”
Rocky’s eyes went still, staring at a sky beyond vision.
He turned. Molly was staring at the wreckage around them. He had to do something. “Okay,” he said, voice echoing in the stillness. “Let’s see what we have left . . .”
“What we have left?” Molly’s voice was scarcely more than a whisper, but it cut through his own. “What we have? Now there’s a we?” Her voice rose in fury. “Where were ‘we’ when Rocky warned you about this?”
“What? What are you . . .?”
Molly’s hands opened and closed. “You knew what he was talking about. He told you about this! You didn’t believe him; didn’t even mention it to me. And now we are trapped here, our family is over and you let it happen!”
Rage replaced shock. “I was supposed to take him seriously?” he got out. “Me? Your whole family never believed a word of his story, but I should have realized he was telling the truth? You wouldn’t have believed him either!”
“We’ll never know now, will we?” sobbed Molly. “Because you never even gave me a chance!”
“Your family had thirty years of chances!” Theo shouted. Horror engulfed him. “And now they’re going to turn on us the same way, aren’t they? They didn’t believe him. They won’t believe us.”
Molly choked, then said., “And will yours be any better? Your Mom and Dad are just going to say, ‘Oh, all that completely secure video doesn’t matter? Despite the fact that no one will trust us again, we believe your ridiculous story?’”
Theo’s stomach opened up. He loved and trusted his parents. And they loved and trusted him. But this . . . his sister. His brothers. Losing this Rock would poison every family in the Belt against them. They would hate him forever, and beg their parents to disown him. And his parents would have to, if only to have the faintest hope of giving them a chance to ride a Rock of their own someday. Molly was right.
“Oh, my God,” she was muttering. “The video. It . . . you . . . said it was your fault. Your fault.” She stared at him. He drew in a cold breath. That video. It offered her an out. And she’s going to take it. On the heels of that thought. If you love her, shouldn’t you want her to?
“Molly,” he said. The words wouldn’t come. His mind raced. “We have to . . . to . . .”
“Have to what?” she wailed. “We’re destroyed. Our family. It’s gone.”
“Don’t say that!”
“Because not saying it will make it less true? You didn’t check the toolroom well enough. You missed a stowaway, Theo. Rocky was here the whole time. It was your duty!”
He was going to lose her. He stared at Rocky’s corpse, seeing his own future. No wife. No family. His father’s kind eyes hardening with contempt. Heard his last words.
“If you work together, you have a Family and a Ship. If you start working against each other, soon you’ll have neither.”
“What if she starts working against me?”
“Then you have to work with her.”
No matter what.
“Okay. I failed. But this? This is what they want. The Earthcorpers. That’s why they scripted it that way. They want us fucking each other over and deciding who to blame rather than fighting them.”
“How can we . . .?
Theo’s head snapped up. “Did you ever love me? When you said those vows, did you mean any of them? How we’d be together until we died? Because I did.”
She flinched. “How can you . . .” Horror crawled over her face. “But we are dead,” she sobbed. “We just haven’t stopped breathing yet.”
Theo took her hands. “That’s what they think. They cut off our power. But we’re Ectos. We don’t need computers and power to live in space. We’ve been trained to work by starlight and do calculus in our heads. We’ve got a claimgather’s worth of tools, you’re my chem witch, and I’m your engineer jock. Don’t make excuses. Fight with me. Hard as we both can. Just promise you’ll kill me if it goes bad, because otherwise, I’ll have to live the rest of my life like that,” he nodded at Rocky. “And I don’t want to.”
Molly opened and closed her mouth. “You’d . . .?”
“Yes. But right now, I want to kill those Earth fuckers trying to destroy our family before it even starts. Don’t you?”
And Molly answered him with a feral snarl. “Yes.”
“Let’s see what Rocky left us.”
Hypercompressed air, glassine, chemicals, fiberoptic cable, hoses, and metallic hydrogen slugs. A couple square kilometers of mylar sail. “And less than an hour to work with,” Theo muttered.
“Maybe we should get out there and try to intercept them,” said Molly.
“No, their sensors could spot us miles away. They’d snipe us before we’d ever see them. And what would we fight them with? Nothing here is a weapon, except maybe the air.”
Molly scoffed. “You wanted to fight, now you’re giving up? And how is the air a weapon?”
Theo attached the valve he’d been modifying to a hypercompressed air tank. Aimed it at the wrecked laser corer. “Watch your eyes.” He squeezed the ‘trigger.’ With a rippling whumph, the corer’s housing sprouted a fist-sized hole. “Out to ten meters, you get a concentrated gas slug. If Rocky had put one together, he could have shot the drone with it.” He gazed at the chemicals. “What about those?”
Molly shook her head. “We could make some mining explosives. But without detonators? We’re looking at a bunch of crap piled together by a lifelong drunk.”
Theo opened his mouth to agree. Closed it. Rocky’s rocket was well thought-out, though. “Do we really need detonators?” he said.
“Mining compound needs electronic detonators, Theo,” snapped Molly.
“But not all explosives do. Are there any you could make that don’t?
Molly blinked. “Picric acid, maybe. Friction detonators. We’d have to be very careful, though. Really, really long pull cords.”
Theo’s mind raced. “Okay, let’s put those chemicals to the side.”
“What are you doing?”
“Rocky wasn’t drunk just now,” Theo said. “He had a plan. But you’re the chem witch. What can we make from what’s left?”
“Nothing,” said Molly. “You really think he was stable? It’s like a chemistry set gone mad: krypton. Fluorine.” She picked up a few vials of compounds Theo didn’t recognize. “I could make some really bright flares. Which is stupid.”
Right. The odds that anyone would see such a signal would be literally astronomical. But what was the glassine tubing for?
“That’s it,” Theo whispered.
“What?” said Molly.
“Okay,” he said, licking his lips, “Get on that picric acid. Check me: how many tunnels to the surface? Twelve?”
“Not including the mass driver, yes.”
“I’ll shut the aperture for that manually. Can you make thermite?”
Molly scoffed. “Since I was ten.”
“Great. We’ll weld the airlocks shut. Except one. Now here’s what I need you to do . . .”
Theo had never been so tired.
He leaped through the corridors as fast as he could push himself. At each corner, he braked to a halt and melted a hole in the ice-wall with his gas torch, being very careful not to disturb the larger, ice-sealed holes he’d planted on his first pass. Then he planted a half-meter diameter mylar mirror on its plastic frame, angled it, and let the water refreeze, cementing it.
He leaped on.
“How’s the lasing medium coming?”
“Krypton fluoride isn’t the easiest compound to work with,” Molly said. “I nearly inhaled some hydrofluoric.”
Theo’s guts chilled. “What?”
“I said nearly. Mirrors set up?”
“Don’t look.” Theo shielded his eyes. There was a flash of light from where Molly knelt, and a burst of steam from the ice wall. Then she tossed him a length of glassine tube wrapped in a spiral of thinner hose connected to a double gas cylinder.
“That should do it. It’s not elegant. When you turn the valve, you’ll get a chemical-pumped flash pulse. You’ll need these.” She tossed her dark welding goggles at him.
“How many shots will I get?”
“Not sure?” Molly did some rapid math. “maybe fifty?”
“I’d better get down there.”
“What will they do? Blast through our doors? Or come down our path?”
How many drones will they have? How fast will they come? So many questions: no answers. “If I were them, I might do both. I love you,” he whispered.
“Love you, too.” Her voice broke.
Theo’s Ectoderm was a dirty gray, as close to the color of the ice-tunnels he moved among as he could make it. In the silence, he imagined sounds, and the echoes of his own careful passage were amplified in his ears. He might make it to the airlock in time to set up a firing position.
Then he heard the hiss. The airlock was opening. Something was coming through.
Charge around the corners and shoot? No. The coillaser was awkward, and he couldn’t outshoot an AI-controlled drone. He leaped backward, around mylar mirror number six and its buried charge and pushed himself back to the next bend. From where he perched, he could see through mirror six all the way down the corridor.
Theo reached for the long cord that led to it, taking up the slack. A charge beneath each mirror, and a friction-primer cord stretching to the next bend in the corridor. A shadow in the mirror. A drone’s movement. Not yet. Too far. I think. Speed and size were hard to judge at a hundred yards. Closer. Closer. The seconds stretched out into a fuzzy eternity, the shape in the mirror seeming to dance at a static distance.
Suddenly, the mirror’s surface rippled, and the drone’s image filled it. Theo yanked the cord. A roar of sound hammered down the corridor, followed by an acrid wind.
Theo blinked, stupidly, peering through the smoke. Something scrabbled at the end of the corridor. Their mirror was gone. Go!
Theo leaped down the next tunnel, heading for mirror number four and the next charge. Crouched and waited. Damn: he hadn’t considered smoke. Looking at this mirror was like looking into a bottle of soup. “Shit,” he whispered. Had he killed the drone? Damaged it? Would they withdraw or push on?
Theo pushed himself away from the wall to clear his laser for a shot and an ugly whine cracked past his ear. The ice exploded in splinters beside him, scoring his Ectoderm. Reflexively, he leaped away. “Shit!” He hadn’t yanked the cord! Too late. He scrambled for mirror number three. If the drone outran him, he was dead. He yanked the cord as he went around the bend. Another rending crack and plume of ochre smoke erupted behind him.
Theo stopped. Had he hit something? No sign of pursuit. Theo peered into mirror three. A shape bobbed in smoke. He looked around the corner.
The crushed drone floated there. Dead. One down, and we’ve used half our mines.
Then something shining black and fast leapt around the corner. Theo frantically twisted the valve of his laser. A slug whined past his ear, going high and faint. Light seared across his vision, and a crack echoed from the end of the tunnel.
The second drone twitched in the air. That was too close. A faint breeze tugged at him. Then he noticed the flashing in the mirror three. Molly was signaling him with her chemlight: breach.
They were coming through the other airlocks. Theo put on his rebreather. Loss of pressure wasn’t even annoying to an Ecto. In fact . . .
Theo’s vision was clearing. The air was taking the smoke with it. If they were coming through the breaches, he had to get back to Molly: they’d be heading straight for the shop. Then Theo froze. They don’t know we haven’t mined the other tunnels. What if they’re just trying to make me move? For a moment he hung on the agony of indecision.
Then he saw movement in the mirror three. How far away?
The great thing about lasers was, as long as you could see it, it didn’t matter. Theo fired.
He couldn’t hear anymore, of course. But when the laser pulse switched off, only fragments remained. Now they’ll come through the breaches. Theo raced back to the shop.
Two were already in the workshop. Crawling infrared spiders. No sign of Molly. A wash of pressure, and one of the drones was smashed into the wall by an invisible hand. Theo leaped out of his tunnel, flipped over and opened his laser’s valve. The last drone exploded. A chemlight flooded the room, illuminating Molly’s frightened face. Then she leaped at him.
They couldn’t kiss through their rebreathers. But her cheek on his felt warm and wonderful.
There was no time, though. Theo pointed to the mirrors. Molly nodded and went off to check her own set. Seconds ticked by. The mirrors were still.
Working quickly, they sealed off the shop with mylar and chemical adhesive. Then they pressurized it. “No leaks,” said Molly. “I thought you were dead!”
“No, just . . . pinned down,” Theo said.
“Did . . . did we win?”
Theo’s mind raced. “I don’t think so,” he said. “This rock is too big a prize. I think we just ran them out of drones. They’ll come themselves, next. Or they could just wait us out. We have to sleep.”
Theo nodded. “Dammit. If we only knew what they were doing . . .”
Suddenly, as she looked past him, Molly’s eyes lit. “Maybe we can,” she murmured.
It made sense, Theo thought. The one thing the Earthers’ nanoplague hadn’t shut off was their own drone. Repowering and disarming the head was fairly simple.
“Got it!” The lights around the drone’s ominous camera eye flickered on. Theo looked into it. “Hi, Expedience,” he said, brightly. “Turns out we’ve managed to fix our electronics, as you can probably tell by the way your drones blew up. Kind of you to try to help, but we’d like you to back off, now.”
For a moment, there was silence. Then a cold voice said, “I don’t think so, Nadjek. You’d be broadcasting the news to the whole system. I don’t think you can, but . . .”
The rock vibrated. “Just in case my chief engineer was as wrong about that as he was about you being able to resist us, that was your primary antenna. No, you’ve just forced us to deal with you ourselves. Which means we can’t leave you alive: you’ve seen too much, now. But we will be able to have a little fun with you, first. Would you like to ask my chief engineer how much fun?”
A long, ragged moan throbbed from the speakers. It sent ugly ripples up Theo’s spine. Molly looked sick, and Ectos didn’t get sick. “See you soon.”
“Oh, my God, Theo, we’ve got to surrender!” Molly cried. “Please, please don’t kill us! We’ll disarm the minefield . . .”
“Molly, shut up!” Theo yelled. “We can’t let them—”
“No! I am NOT dying here for a stupid Rock! I hate this place, I hate this—”
Frantically, Theo fumbled with the circuit, killed the power, but it was too late to cut off Molly’s screams. The drone’s lights died. Theo turned back, “Molly, how could you . . .?” he snarled.
Into her smug grin?
“Hope that fooled them as well as it did you,” she said.
Theo opened his mouth, closed it. “We don’t have a minefield.”
“No. But they’ll have to look for them. And you cutting me off certainly makes it sound authentic.”
Theo let his breath out slowly. “If I didn’t love you so much, I think I’d kill you,” he said.
“And I need the time to get the explosives prepared.”
“For a minefield?” Theo said, stupidly.
“No. I need you to make us helmets, engineer jock.”
Theo blinked. “Helmets? We need to live like bubbleheads?”
“Trust me. And hurry, because there’s a bigger job I need you for . . .”
Molly touched her enormous bubble helmet to Theo’s. “Stop. There.”
Theo followed her finger. Just over the horizon, a point of light moved, pulsing erratically. “Check my numbers.”
They’d set their Ectoderm to a pattern of gray-and-white streaks, resembling the ice they walked on as best they could. But there was no way to prevent their breaths from heating up the bubble helmets, and they had to talk. If Expedience was looking their way with a thermograph, the first Molly and Theo would know of it was a hyperkinetic slug slamming through their flesh.
Of course, they’ll probably be looking out for Molly’s “minefield” instead of at us.
Molly peered through the instrument Theo had cobbled together. “Tangential motion . . . 23 arcminutes per second. Angle from local horizon . . . 5.4 degrees.”
Theo did some mental math. “23 meters clockwise from right here?”
“I check that.” He ran through the computations in his head. “Get to the massdriver, we don’t have much time.” Molly blew him a kiss, leaped backward and vanished through one of the blasted-open airlocks.
Theo paced off the 23 meters. Then he ran in a series of leaps toward the rising star of the Expedience, just kissing the rock’s surface with his feet. Now came the most dangerous part: getting their attention. He switched on the drone camera and speaker that he had bonded to the side of his bubble helmet.
When they noticed, their voice was tinny through the crysteel and canned air. “Did you want to talk, or were you just helping us track you down?”
“I doubt you bubbleheads can really figure out where I am through this feed,” Theo answered, though they could. “I just thought I’d show you something.”
Theo sailed over the lip of a shallow, bowl-shaped crater. An openwork gantry of metal and carbon nanotubes extended about three meters out of the ice. “See, there’s a lot you can do without electronics. Like this chemical laser. Got your drones with it. Think we can’t get some of you?”
“Very creative,” rasped the speaker. “Let us show you something.”
Theo leaped aside. A hammer punched into the ice six meters away.
“Not very accurate at your distance.” As long as I don’t stay in the same place more than about five seconds. But Ectos danced on the surface of asteroids whenever they could. He leaped while he spoke. “We’ve got more than guns.” He faced the gantry. “You know what that is?”
“Core drill mount,” said the voice. Another slug slammed down. Four meters this time. Theo leaped farther. “Probably the way you Ectos discovered this rock was worth calling a claimgather over.”
“Good: you know how deep it goes.” Theo brought a thick disc of carefully-machined metal into view of the camera. “And of course, you know metastable metallic hydrogen,” he said.
“You’re going to blow yourself up?” asked the voice. “Excellent. Good-bye.”
“Oh, there are hundreds more at the bottom of this shaft,” said Theo. “Funny, there’s a truly enormous fault, there. One of them has a contact detonator attached. So when I drop this one down, well . . . things will get very exciting. I wonder if there will be anything left worth salvaging?”
Another slug slammed down where Theo had been seconds ago. Shards scored shallowly into his Layer and Ectoderm. Then the voice was back, tense. “You don’t have anywhere near the supply of metal-H to blow the whole Rock apart!”
Theo snorted. “It IS the most common substance in the universe.”
“As a gas, yes. It takes a lot of power to turn it into that.”
A slug blasted the gantry into scrap.
“Nice try, but the hole’s still there,” said Theo. “And what do you think Ecto ships’ energy is usually doing between rocks? We have to make our own fuel. Have fun picking up the pieces.” And he threw the chunk of metal-H down the hole. Then he drew the hypercompressed air tank from his back and opened the valve wide.
The surge of acceleration whipped Theo off the surface, on a crazy trajectory no gunner could possibly track.
Faintly, he heard a new voice from the speaker shout, “What was THAT?”
Below him, a huge chunk of the Rock’s surface burst into white flame and a cloud of surface ice. Slowly, the Honeymoonlet began to tumble.
“Nice try, kid,” the voice in his helmet said, almost sadly. “But your superbomb wasn’t nearly deep enough.” Expedience flared. Slowed. “And now your damn Rock is spinning. It’ll slow us, but not enough.” Below Theo, the long barrel of the massdriver tumbled into view.
Lining up with the Expedience.
It had no power. But Molly had plenty of metastable hydrogen to detonate in its chamber. The chamber Theo had reinforced to take the explosion. White hot plasma flared from deep in the barrel.
And again. Again. As fast as Molly could wrestle the charges in, they blasted their canisters of slag out into space.
Theo couldn’t see the face behind the voice, but for the rest of his life, he could imagine it: the dawning comprehension turning to horror. “What . . .? God . . . hard burn! HARD BURN!”
Silently, Expedience, sprouted jets of air and water vapor as the Honeymoonlet’s slag struck. Sparks flared and died along with its crew and drive.
And lights went up all over the surface of the Rock.
“Theo? Theo? Are you okay?” Molly was on the radio: she sounded like she’d been crying.
“Right here, Molly. You did it.”
“You did it,” Molly replied. “Lined it up perfectly. How do we have power?”
“The plague,” Theo said. “It must be controlled from the ship. They must trigger it by radio. If the signal stops, it just self-destructs. That way, no one would ever know what they pulled.”
“So . . . we won? Our family is safe?” Molly asked.
“As safe as we can make it,” said Theo. “How big should it be?”
“I think we should fill the Ship. Speaking of which, you want to see if we can tow that wreck in for salvage? We might be able to afford a bigger one.”
“Good plan,” said Theo. “One thing. Our first son. We name him Jurgen.”
“Jurgen Rocky Nadjek,” said Molly. “Done.”
Copyright © 2021 by G. Scott Huggins
Since 2007, The National Space Society and Baen Books has honored the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science by teaming up to sponsor the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award. The prize is given out at the annual International Space Development Conference banquet. “Salvage Judgment” is the winner of this year’s Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award. And, for the first time in over a decade, we have a double winner of both the JBM and the Baen Fantasy Adventure awards. “Humanslayer,” by G. Scott Huggins was the 2020 grand prize winner of the sixth annual Baen Fantasy Adventure Award. As a testament to the author’s ability, we would like to stress that both contests are judged blind, and the judges had no idea who the authors were while adjudicating both contests! G. Scott Huggins the author of new novel Responsibility of the Crown, and can be found blogging at his web site, here.