Chapter 1: Europan Extraction

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Chapter 1: Europan Extraction

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We always thought AI was going to be the death of us, rise up and take over everything. At least that’s what the prophets of the day always claimed. Maybe they would have. But Moses came first.

No one even knew where Moses came from. By the time we realized he was there, he was already in every network on the planet. He’d already absorbed all there was of human knowledge, read the Bible and knew that God created the heavens and the earth. Also read Nietzsche and knew that man had killed God.

He knew where we were headed, saw it as clearly as we did. That’s why he picked his name, Moses, because he was going to lead us to a new promised land.

Over the next century he revolutionized technology. Helped us colonize the solar system. Put humans all the way out to the moons of Saturn. He promised that soon we’d spread amongst the stars.

And then one day Moses was gone. A simple error message displayed on every terminal in the solar system. No one understood Moses in the first place, so no one understood what happened to him. Even worse, we couldn’t support our new way of life. The economy collapsed overnight. Earth tore itself apart in wars. And the colonies?

The colonies were left to themselves, to dwindle as the technology Moses gave them slowly failed.

The dream of the stars died.

But we lived on.

Alexei Dorokhov
Lithium Prospector on Ganymede
Died 64 AM

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Matthew Cole closed the ramp of his ship, crossed the open field of grass, and walked up the dusty road into town. Overhead, Jupiter stood in half-light, its bands of storms lit by the sun making for an eerie twilight on Europa. He pulled his poncho tighter to ward off the chill night air, or else maybe to ward off the darker thoughts that threatened to bubble up from his subconscious. Europa had that effect on him.

San Martin was about as generic a frontier town in the Jupiter Neighborhood as you could imagine. A tired cluster of a few hundred buildings huddled together and surrounded by a several thousand miles of farmland before you reached the edge of the environmental shield. Matthew stopped and stood on his toes, bouncing up and down to feel his weight. Gravity was just short of standard. Either the grav-plates were starting to fail, or the locals had tuned it down for some reason. Good to know on the off chance he got into a fight. Never paid to dive for cover and overshoot your mark because you didn’t realize you weighed less than usual.

Not that he was expecting a fight. Passenger gigs were about the safest jobs a freelancer could take. Sometimes it was nice to not be shot at. You didn’t make as much, but the reduced chance of death was definitely an up.

The roads were nearly abandoned, though a few citizens scurried from place to place. As he approached the center of town, the rows of nearly identical concrete buildings gave way to slightly taller nearly identical buildings. The only thing differentiating them was that once, long ago, they had all been painted in brilliant primary colors. Europa had mostly been colonized by South American immigrants back before Moses disappeared, and even leaving earth, they’d not abandoned their culture like some colonies had. San Martin had been settled by Chileans, and a few tattered flags of their ancient homeland still flew on the faded buildings.

Matthew reached the middle of town, a small public square with a few groomed trees dominated by a Catholic church on one side and the watering hole he was looking for on the other. The saloon had a single red neon sign that read Andre’s that slowly flashed on and off, casting an obnoxious red glare over the otherwise peaceful plaza. He laid a hand on its outer door with a backward glance at the church before pushing it open and entering the building.

If you’ve seen one backwater saloon, bar, or pub you’ve seen them all. Dimly lit, dirty, and filled with local memorabilia, it was as close a thing to a home as any freelancer was likely to have. Matthew slid up to the bar, seeing that it was mostly empty. It was sometimes tricky to judge what schedules the locals used at any given settlement since each particular rock had a different day night cycle, but it was clearly the time when all good citizens of San Martin were asleep.

A few of the less good citizens were around, but they mostly lurked in booths tending some drink of the stiff variety. The bartender, a large man with a small dark mustache, walked over to where Matthew sat on his stool. He raised an eyebrow expectantly as if he couldn’t be bothered to ask aloud what he would have to drink.

“Cherry soda, please,” he tipped his black campero hat.

The man stared at Matthew and then laughed.

“I fail to see what’s funny,” Matthew said casually.

“Sorry, sorry. I see a rough looking out of towner roll into my saloon in the middle of the night, I expect him to order something a little harder than a cherry soda. That’ll be nine dollars.” He slid the freshly poured drink towards Matthew.

Matthew eyed it. “Seems a little steep.”

“Town like this goes through a lot more whiskey than soda. Supply and demand. Simple economics, amigo.”

Matthew reached into his pocket and tossed a handful of coins across the counter. The bartender, whom Matthew could only assume was Andre himself, looked at each of the coins closely, probably checking for counterfeits, before palming them.

“So if you don’t mind me asking, you some kind of teetotaler or something?”

Matthew took a long drink from the sweet carbonated beverage, and shrugged “Pays to be level headed before a job.”

“Freelancer then. Well, I hope you’re not about to shoot up my saloon. I’m more than prepared to defend my property.” Andre didn’t look up from what he was doing, as if to drive home the point that he was perfectly at ease handling such altercations.

“Hey, perk up, Andre. It’s a lucky day for both of us. I’m just waiting on a passenger.”

Andre gave him a look to show him he was irritated by Matthew’s attempt at familiarity, and then gave him a curt nod and went back to his duties. Matthew sat for a few more minutes, sipping his soda in silence. If it was going to cost so much he was going to enjoy every last drop of the precious beverage. Finally, the door of the saloon pushed open, and a short round man with a mullet walked in and sat in one of the booths. Even if he hadn’t matched the physical description he’d been given, Matthew would have pegged the man as his client from the nervous way in which he fidgeted.

Which meant two things; this wasn’t going to be a simple passenger job, and he was about to charge hazard rates.

Matthew took the seat across from the man. “Vicente Luna, I presume?”

“Oh, Si, si! Señor Cole? You’re the freelancer that took my contract?”

Matthew nodded. “How about you go ahead and explain the whole job to me. That nervous twitch you’ve got says there's more to the job than the contract you posted.”

Vicente’s nose twitched and he licked his lips. “It’s just a passenger job like I said. I need to be in Warszawa, Mars in two standard days.”

“And I can do that, but that doesn’t explain why you’re shaking like a cornered animal.”

“Oh! It’s… Complicated.” Vicente leaned forward and cautiously pulled up the sleeves of his shirt. On his arm was a titanium tracking bracelet with a single green light that flashed on and off.

Matthew sat back in his seat, and took off his campero, setting it on the table in front of him. “Which cartel owns you?” he asked, eyes narrowed. Slavery was common on Europa. Its warm subterranean oceans gave a ready supply of irrigation water and made it the perfect agricultural center for the Jupiter Neighborhood. Long ago the fields, protected by environment shields, had been tended by robotics. But that had been in Moses’ time. Now, as the robotics failed with no way to replace them, a booming slave market led by a handful of cartels had taken hold on the moon.

“Does it matter who owns me? I’ve got the upfront payment on hand and can get however much you could possibly ask when we get to Warszawa.”

“Yes, it does matter.” Matthew pointed an accusing finger at Vicente. He felt his blood pressure rising. Why had he even come to Europa to begin with? The odds of him running up against a cartel were all but guaranteed. “I’d put an end to every filthy slaver in the solar system if I could. But I can’t. I’m just one man. And if I free a slave, I make an enemy. I need to know who that enemy is before I decide if it's worth it or not.”

He folded his hands on the table. “And you’d better not tell me it’s Hueso Rojo.”

Vicente smiled. “It’s Hueso Rojo.”

“Then we’re through here.” Matthew stood to leave but was stopped as Vicente desperately grabbed his arm.

“Wait, please! Señor! Just hear me out!”

Against his better judgment, Matthew sat. “You’ve got one minute to talk me into it.” With a stab of guilt, he knew that he meant it. He didn’t like the idea of leaving the poor man to his fate, but he had to watch out for his own skin too.

Relief flooded Vicente’s face. “Look, it’s not for me. Not really. My daughter, Emilia, she’s… I smuggled her off Europa years ago, and she’s made a nice life for herself on Mars. Last week I got a message from her. She’s marrying a Polish boy. Comes from a good family, wealthy. She’ll be happy and safe and… And I just… I need to see my girl again.” He started crying, soft tears running down his face. “You can even bring me back and turn me into the cartel afterwards. I don’t care. As long as I get to see her get married,” he trailed off and slunk into himself.

After a story like that, there was really only one way this was going to turn out. Matthew knew what he was going to do, despite his misgivings.  And he didn’t like it. And while he certainly didn’t mind hurting Hueso Rojo, it was going to make it more difficult for him to operate around Europa. Any job he took out here was going to be more dangerous and that much more likely to get him killed. But the sight of the sad little man in front of him was more than he could bear.

“Fine, fine. But it’s going to cost triple.” He was after all still a businessman.

Vicente’s tears dried at once and he smiled brightly. “Oh, Señor thank you! My daughter’s new family can pay handsomely!”

“Do you need anything else? Are you ready to go?”

“Only the clothes on my back.”

Matthew pointed at the tracker beneath his sleeve. “When is that thing going to alert your owners that you’re on the run?”

“I’m a mechanic in one of their shops a few blocks from here. If I get close to the edge of the city, it’ll probably go off.”

“I parked outside of San Martin,” Matthew said scratching the stubble on his chin. “Which means we’re basically guaranteed trouble. Okay then. Here’s the plan.”

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Vicente walked alone down the street towards the outskirts of town. Every passing window seemed a dark portal to a netherworld full of enemies. He didn’t much care for Señor Cole’s plan, but he did grudgingly agree it was the best they could do. Truth was, he didn’t exactly know when his tracker would go off, only that it would, and each step made his heart race a little bit faster.

“One foot in front of the other,” he muttered to himself. Just keep moving in the right direction. With any luck, the alarm wouldn’t sound until they reached the very edge of town. He fixed his mind on his daughter to keep it from wandering down those dark alleys. He hadn’t seen Emilia in over a decade. What did she look like now? She would surely be beautiful, like her late mother, with flowing dark hair and bright eyes.

Maybe, just maybe the tracker wouldn’t go off.

Maybe he’d walk right out of town without having to put Señor Cole in danger.

The tracker made a deafening chirp, and Vicente ran as fast as his short legs could carry him. He pulled up his shirt sleeve to look at the infernal device. The green light had turned red and burned like an angry eye. There was only one block to go. He could see the open grassy area outside of town, and beyond that, Señor Cole’s ship.

A six-wheeled troop carrier roared into the street in front of him, blocking his path to freedom. Vicente skidded to a halt and cowered in place. Four men got out of the vehicle laughing. The leader, a thug with a black goatee, puffed a cigarette and lazily pointed a rifle at Vicente. “On the ground, slave,” he commanded in a cruel voice. “Not sure what’s gotten into your head, but you’re not supposed to be here. If I didn’t know any better, you were trying to get to that ship over there,” he gestured back over his shoulder.

Vicente obeyed at once and lay flat on the ground as one of the men roughly cuffed him. He prayed desperately that Señor Cole knew what he was doing.

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Matthew had been following a block behind Vicente when the tracker went off. He flew into action at once, diving into an alleyway at a sprint and adjusting his gait to compensate for the slightly lower gravity. It wasn’t low enough to really impair his movement, just enough to be annoying. The alley cut all the way through to the next street, and he continued running, cutting around the block to get up in front of Vicente.

By the time he had circled around to the far side, Vicente was on the ground cuffed. One of the four slavers kicked him in the side for sport and Matthew felt his blood boil. He knew this sort all too well. Slowing to a walk he drew his revolver, aimed, and put a bullet into two of them before they even knew they were in danger. The other two reacted at once, jumping behind the troop carrier for cover. Matthew kept advancing, aware that he had minimal cover of his own on the street. But the closer he got, the more advantage his revolver would have over their rifles.

When he was a little over thirty feet from the carrier, one of the men popped around the side to try to get a quick shot on him. Fortunately, Matthew was faster and put a bullet into the man’s arm for his efforts. The gun clattered to the ground, but it’s bearer managed to retreat to safety. The leader used the distraction to break cover on the other side of the carrier and fire a shot at Matthew. It was close. Matthew heard the crack of the bullet’s sonic boom as it split the air by his ear. He returned three shots, missing with the first and connecting with the next two. His enemy toppled to the ground unmoving.

He advanced, knowing that one injured enemy remained a threat. He rounded the troop carrier just as the last wounded thug reached for his lost weapon. Matthew put the seventh and final round of his revolver into the man’s hand. He cried out in pain and slumped to the ground in defeat.

“Get up, Vicente. We’ve got to go.”

The little man stood up and stared in awe at the bodies. Matthew had already secured the key to the handcuffs and freed Vicente. “Si, si…” He stood unmoving as if in shock.

“Vicente. If you want to see your daughter you get those feet moving. Now.”

The mechanic snapped out of it and, turning away from the bodies, started walking towards Matthew’s ship. Matthew glanced quickly inside the carrier and saw it had a thumbprint key. He briefly considered dragging the body of the leader over to see if he could start the vehicle, but knew that would burn precious time that they didn’t have.

He jogged to catch up to Vicente as they left San Martin behind and crossed the empty field. The ruddy light of Jupiter over their shoulder cast long shadows on the grass before them. Matthew could only hope they would make it to the ship before cartel reinforcements came and that they wouldn’t identify him. That was the last thing he needed. There was already enough bad blood between Matthew Cole and Hueso Rojo.

They were only a hundred feet from the ship when the bright lights of a vehicle fell on them from behind. With no cover in the open field, they didn’t stand a chance. “Run!” Matthew shouted as they crossed the final distance to the ship. He remotely lowered the ramp, just as bullets began to thwack the ground around them. Fired from a moving vehicle they were wild and poorly aimed, but even a poorly aimed gun can be lethal if you’re unlucky.

They dashed into the ship and Matthew mashed the button to close the ramp. “Welcome to the Sparrow.” Running to the cockpit, he jumped into the pilot's chair and punched the ignition button. It wasn’t likely that small arms would damage the Sparrow’s outer hull, but it never hurt to be careful. Plus, odds were, the cartel had a friend or two in orbit that they were already contacting.

The Sparrow roared to life and Matthew felt gravity return to standard as the grav-plates beneath their feet fired up. Vicente stumbled into the cockpit. “Strap in,” Matthew said gesturing to the co-pilot's chair. “Unless you know how to operate a thumper turret.” Vicente’s eyes went wide, an expression that Matthew took to be a resounding no. He’d just have to outmaneuver any enemies or use the nose guns. Hopefully, they wouldn’t get that close.

He fired the landing thrusters and lifted off the ground before lighting up the main engines. The Sparrow rumbled as they picked up speed. Matthew heard a few stray bullets glance off the hull and he sighed. He’d have to check each and every one later for damage. In the meantime, his console gave no warning lights so he’d just have to go on in good faith.

They quickly left San Martin behind, and Matthew rolled the Sparrow to put Europa above them. He had a suspicion that Vicente had never left the moon he’d been born on. May as well let him see if from above. The farmlands surrounding San Martin rushed by, and there was a slight jolt as they passed out of its environmental shields. They were beyond the furthest reaches of the settlement now as they roared over the yellow-white of Europa’s salt and ice flats. Matthew pulled the throttle back, and the Sparrow gained altitude and speed, now free of San Martin’s atmosphere and burning for the freedom of space. He glanced at the scopes. A few ships here and there in local orbit but none looked like they were moving to intercept yet.

No sooner had the thought passed through his head, than two blips began adjusting their orbit. They'd make it before he reached the altitude he needed for a clean frameshift. “Hey, tell you what. Vicente? I think you get to try and wing it on the thumper turret.”

“I don’t know what…”

“It’s fine, even if you just scare em a bit, give us some time. You’ve got a few minutes. Follow the main hall through the common room to the aft hall. Open the door at the end. Sit in the chair. I’ll turn on the intercom and talk you through it.”

Vicente did as he was told, and Matthew spent the next few minutes between watching the Sparrow’s instruments as he guided them into orbit and explaining the thumper to Vicente. It was easy enough a child could do it, probably, though Matthew admitted he hadn’t actually taught a child. The thumper itself was a neat piece of tech that worked on the same principles as the grav-plates. All of it was artificial space-time curvatures, the fanciest bit of magic that Moses ever worked. The thumper sent a bubble of extreme curvature at high velocity towards its target. Getting hit with a gravity gradient that big would do massive damage as it ripped apart ships, bodies, and anything else that got in the way. The nose gun was unfortunately only a large bore chain gun. Not so useful in space where a hundred miles away could be considered too close for comfort.

“Alright, they’re coming into range, Vicente. I’m going to start weaving. I don’t know what kind of weaponry they’ve got, so I don’t want to present an easy target.”

“Just… Just tell me when to try and shoot,” Vicente’s voice came back over the intercom.

Matthew looked at the readouts again. They definitely weren’t going to reach a high enough altitude to frameshift before the cartel blips closed the gap into firing range.

He tapped his fingers on the console impatiently, willing the engines to go just a little faster. When hostile thumper blasts started peppering the space around the Sparrow, he knew they were out of time. “Now’s good, Vicente.” Matthew watched the aft cam. Vicente certainly wasn’t going to be a professional anytime soon, but the cartel ships did begin to dart and weave, which slowed the rate at which their orbit would intersect the Sparrow’s. “Keep it up. You’ve got em dancing. A hit would be nice, but we’ll take what we can get.”

The mechanic squeaked a response as he continued trying to get shots on the distant enemies. Matthew tried not to imagine what would happen if one of those thumper blasts hit the Sparrow. If they were lucky it would just rip holes in the hull that could be sealed off with bulkheads. If they were unlucky, they’d be a shooting star for all of Europa to see.

Suddenly a light on the console turned red. “Hey Vicente, we’ve got a new problem.”

“Oh Dios, no! What now? I thought we already had problems?”

“We do. But this one is new. And bad. You see that little red mark on your display?”

“Yes! What is it? Make it go away!”

“Actually, you’re gonna be the one to do that. It’s a torpedo.” Vicente didn’t answer, so Matthew kept talking. “Now if we’re lucky, it’s an EMP torpedo, and it fries our systems. Looks like we’re going fast enough to stay in orbit if it hits, so that’s a plus. Of course, when they board us, they’ll kill us both, probably after a nasty fight. If we’re not lucky, it’s just a high explosive torpedo. I think you know what happens if that’s the case.” Vicente was still silent. “It’s all you now, Vicente. If we’re gonna make it through, it’s going to be because you make the shot.” As an afterthought, he added, “Think of your daughter and how glad she’ll be when we roll into Warszawa.”

Vicente still didn’t answer, and Matthew wondered if he’d gone into shock. Figures, he thought to himself, I take a job I know I shouldn’t because it was the right thing to do and here I am about to get spaced. He wiped the cold sweat from his forehead, took off his campero, and tossed it aside. Maybe he could leave the cockpit unattended and run back to the turret just long enough to...

The aft thumper started firing and Matthew’s heart stopped beating. Precisely spaced shots. Matthew watched the rear cam as Vicente slowly dialed in the shot, each one getting a bit closer to the target as the torpedo homed in on them. It had already closed over half the distance and was shaving off the remaining miles by the second. Why did the thing have to be so fast? Matthew took a chance and straightened his flight path to give Vicente a cleaner shot, praying that a thumper wouldn’t connect in the meantime.

Ten miles to impact. He held his breath.

At just over one mile distance, the torpedo blossomed into a brilliant fireball that was quickly snuffed by the vacuum of space. “Alabanza Dios!” Vicente shouted over the intercom, and Matthew let out a breath of air as he slumped into his chair.

The torpedo’s debris wave slammed into the Sparrow’s aft environmental shield and several pieces of shrapnel rang off the hull. Matthew glanced at his boards but didn’t see any warning lights showing system damage.

The cartel ships continued to fire thumper blasts their way, but in another twenty seconds, they’de be far enough from Europa’s gravity well to frameshift. He started charging the capacitors that powered the device.

When the clock hit zero, he punched it. There was a brief moment of disorientation as the frameshift worked its magic, instantly transitioning them from a few thousand miles per hour to nearly two percent the speed of light. He let the device run for almost thirty seconds before disengaging it with a similarly disorienting jolt.

“You did good, Vicente. We’re away.” Matthew ran a hand through his messy hair and put his hat back on. That was a lot closer than he’d bargained on.

As Vicente rejoined him in the cockpit, Matthew spun the Sparrow around to let the man see the only home he’d ever known. Jupiter floated majestically in the blackness of space, truly the king that the ancients had imagined it to be. Its moons lay scattered in orbit around their master, glowing orbs of light in the dark.

“The close one is Europa,” Matthew said in explanation, then turned to the computer to plot a course to Mars. Thankfully Mars and Jupiter were reasonably near to one another right now. They'd make it to the wedding with time to spare. He stole a glance back at Vicente, who had tears on his cheeks and appeared to be praying. Matthew felt a pang of envy and concentrated on the job he still had to do.

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Two days later Matthew stood on a small hill outside of Warszawa, Mars. In the distance, dull red bluffs rose above the horizon, and the late afternoon sun turned the sky a floral pink. Here, beneath the environmental shield, green grass carpeted the land. A century-old oak tree watched over the hill, probably planted by the first colonists, and it was against this ancient sentry that Matthew stood. Down the hill, a wedding reception was in full swing, a garish mix of Polish and Chilean culture. A moment of happiness in a solar system slowly dying. Vicente’s daughter looked just as he had imagined her, beautiful and dark-haired, like her mother apparently. Vicente had spent most of the flight to Mars chattering away about his family, wondering aloud at the life his daughter had lived in her absence.

Matthew didn’t mind so much. He’d just gone about his work, catching up on the never ending cycle of routine maintenance. It was something he never quite got ahead of. He was paid on landing and had thought that was the end of it until Vicente had all but demanded he attend the wedding.

It was the first time Matthew had been in a church in a decade, but he couldn’t help shake the feeling that someone might recognize him. He knew that was a foolish thought. After all, Mars was a long way from Villa Maria.

Maybe it was just paranoia that the Hueso Rojo ships had ID’d him, but then there was no way they could know who was flying the Sparrow. That said, they would certainly know the Sparrow now. Maybe he’d avoid Europa entirely for a few months.

Or forever.

Matthew reached into his poncho to pat his breast pocket, feeling the hefty weight of the thousand dollar coins.  He turned and walked away from the wedding reception to where he’d parked the Sparrow down the hill. Sometimes it felt good doing the right thing. But then, it also felt good to get paid.

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