Chapter 11: Between a Rock

 
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Chapter 11: Between a Rock

 
 
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The freelancers really didn’t get their start till after Moses. When everything started coming apart at the seams, creative men and women stepped forward to offer their services to do, well, anything you needed. Good old fashioned capitalism at work. Where there is a demand, someone will supply it.

And they supplied it, all right. Whether it was unofficial police work that the officials were too busy to deal with in the chaos, shipping of goods across the solar system, escorting VIPs back and forth, hunting bounties, or whatever it was, they did it all. Some were even straight up hitmen.

You never really knew what you were getting when you hired a freelancer in those early days. That’s where we stepped in.

The brokers brought order to the chaos and civilized a growing profession. Needed something specific done? We could find you the right freelancer. You probably didn’t want Murderface Mike providing extra security for your orphanage. We made sure that didn’t happen.

Usually.

Sometimes the brokers got into turf wars with each other and pit freelancers against each other. When that happened the freelancers became pawns in someone else’s game.

Those were fun times.

Fredrick Daulton
First Chairman of the Broker Alliance
Died 31 AM

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“Wake up. That’s right. I mean you. I need all hands on deck.”

Grace blinked her eyes twice as the fog of sleep strangled her brain. What time was it and what was Mr. Cole talking about? She glanced at the clock. 3 AM ship time. She rolled over. No, he didn’t mean her. Unfortunately, his voice came back over the ship's intercom and made the point clear.

“Grace, Davey, you too. Davey, I’ll be at your door to unlock it in five minutes. Be ready.”

Grace growled into her pillow and rolled out of bed, landing on the floor in a tangle of sheets. She blinked again and hit the light by her bedside.

Why was he bothering them at 3 AM?

She slowly stood to her feet, kicking away her bedding and fumbled in a drawer for one of her two changes of clothes. She picked her blue shirt because she liked it, not caring that she’d worn it yesterday.

“Why is life so unfair?” she grumbled, before mentally kicking herself.

Really it was the opposite. The Sparrow had been the best thing to ever happen to her. Good food, nice people, and no enforcers yelling. Davey wasn’t so happy, but he deserved every bit of hard work he was doing. Mr. Cole had had him scrubbing the deck of the hold the day after they came aboard. Grace was doing her best not to speak to him right now.

After finishing the hold, Davey and Mr. Cole had moved to the outer hull. Yvonne had helped rig up one of the too-tall spacesuits for her brother. He looked silly with a bunching of suit material at his knees and shoulders, but it worked.

Abigail joked about how nice, bright, and clean the Sparrow would be from now on, and Matthew had given her a stern look. She wasn’t quite sure what that was about.

“Two minutes,” came the voice over the intercom.

“We hear you!” Grace yelled at the speaker. She stepped into her cabin’s small bathroom. Better take care of that now. Who knows how long Mr. Cole would keep them up.

“Time’s up,” he said. “Davey I’m on my way.”

Grace washed her hands, turned off the light, and pulled the two golden bracelets over her wrists. Since no one else could get them to do anything, Mr. Cole had made her promise to wear them at all times when she was outside her cabin.

“I’m not comfortable with you being on the ship at all,” he’d said, “But I’ll feel a little better knowing you’re bulletproof. Also, I want you to practice with those things. If you’re ever in danger, I don’t want you holding back if you have to defend yourself.”

He hadn’t been all that happy when she and Abigail used the miracles to play catch with heavy pieces of scrap metal in the hold. Nevermind that she’d been practicing like he wanted. If anyone on this ship was going to be the spoilsport and ruin a good bit of fun, it was definitely going to be Mr. Cole.

She opened her door. Mr. Cole and Davey passed her on the way to the common room. The ship’s captain didn’t so much as glance down at her and Davey refused to make eye contact.

“Rude,” she whispered, making a face at their backs.

The door beside her opened and Abigail stepped out, armored and ready to go. She winked at Grace. “Come on. Let’s see what the grumpy gaucho wants. If it’s not worth it, I say we mutiny.”

Grace cracked a smile and nodded. The last of the sleep was clearing from her brain. “I saw a few roaches down in engineering last week. We could put some in his bed.”

Abigail’s eyes widened at that. “You kids play for keeps. Let’s, uh, leave the bugs out of it, alright?”

“What’s wrong with bugs?”

Abigail’s eyes twitched. “Imagine if one got inside my suit. No thank you. Leave the bugs out of this.”

Grace laughed at the thought of Abigail destroying the ship because a bug crawled into her armor and she skipped down the hall to the common room. Yvonne was already seated at the table sipping a cup of coffee. Grace wondered if she had even been to bed yet. She always went to bed late and was up even earlier. Maybe old people didn’t need much sleep. Grace slid into the chair beside her. Davey sat across from her, his black hair sticking up on one side where he had been sleeping on it.

Abigail stood behind them, arms crossed. “Alright what is it, Cole? This had better be worth it.”

“It will be. I just got a call from Benny, who heard from one of his contacts. He’s got a job, but we have to move now.”

Yvonne stirred her coffee. “What could be so time sensitive?”

“Looks like Jupiter just snagged itself a temporary satellite, an M-type Jupiter trojan.”

Grace looked around the room and wondered if that was supposed to mean anything. She felt better when she saw everyone’s blank stare. She was surprised that Davey was the one to ask the question they were all thinking.

“And that is... What exactly?”

Mr. Cole reached up and adjusted his hat, looking a bit impatient. “Jupiter trojans are a family of asteroids that share an orbit with the gas giant. On occasion, Jupiter will snag one as a temporary moon. No one really notices, outside of updating the charts, because most of the trojans are D-types. Silicates. Carbon. Sometimes ice. Nothing of much value. Trojans are rarely the much more valuable M-types.”

“Metallic?” Abigail guessed.

“Exactly,” Mr. Cole said, nodding his head. “Iron and nickel.”

“For which a mining company will pay a handsome sum,” Yvonne suggested. “I’m assuming this asteroid is small enough for the Sparrow to haul?”

He nodded. “It’ll barely fit inside the frameshift device’s bubble of effect, but I think we can make it work. Abigail, Davey, and I will go EVA and drill towing cables into its surface. Yvonne will be in the cockpit monitoring everything.”

“What will I do?” Grace asked raising a hand.

Mr. Cole’s eyes flicked to her, and she knew that he had forgotten her. Figured.

“You’ll stay with Yvonne and do exactly as she says. If she needs assistance, you’ll be there for her.”

Well, that was better than nothing. Except for going back to bed. That would be much better. She frowned as the obvious question worked its way into her head. “Why do we have to do this now? The M-class whatever will still be there in the morning, right?”

“Maybe,” Mr. Cole said. “Maybe not. My broker says we got word first, but I don’t trust the secret to stay a secret. If we don’t get that asteroid another crew will. We move in now, secure the prize before someone else does, and then wait for Benny to figure out who we’re going to sell it to. Any other questions?”

No one moved.

“Good. Since we’re still parked in Jupiter’s orbit, we’re only a couple minutes away from the asteroid by frameshift. Yvonne, get Davey situated in his spacesuit and then head to the cockpit. Abigail, be ready to go for a walk.”

Everyone began to move around in preparation, and Grace sat back in her seat. Too bad she didn’t have her spacesuit from the Duke’s habitat. She’d always liked going on missions and feeling important. She was good at her job too, but Mr. Cole didn’t seem to think she was all that valuable a member of the crew. At least with these people her mission wouldn’t be stealing things. Probably. With nothing better to do, she followed after Mr. Cole. He had the Sparrow moving by the time she poked her head into the cockpit. Not wanting to disturb him, she crept up to the co-pilot’s chair and sat in it.

He glanced at her and smiled one of those polite little smiles adults sometimes gave her. She always thought it was something they did when they didn’t have anything to say.

Grace spun the chair.

“Stop that,” he said.

She stuck her foot out and caught it on the console. “Why?”

“Because it… Because I… Look, it bothers me. Just don’t spin the chair, okay?”

“Fine,” she said.

“And don’t touch anything.”

Grace turned to face him. “Mr. Cole. I used to be in command of the fuel module on our missions. I’m not going to start pushing random buttons or anything stupid like that.” She gave him a look and shook her head.

He frowned and turned back to what he was doing. “You’re too young to be that good at giving that kind of look. I didn’t think most women developed that skill till much later.” His expression softened. “But you’re right. I’m sorry. I know you’re more mature than that.”

She smiled at the compliment.

“Also, drop the Mr. Cole thing. You make me sound like a teacher. Matthew is fine. Okay, coming up on the target. Frameshift device will power down in 3… 2… 1… We’re here.”

Grace stood up and looked out the window. “I don’t see anything.”

“It’s off to the side and a few hundred miles out. I’ll get us faced that way in just a moment.”

“Miles?”

She could see the confusion in his eyes. Like he didn’t even understand the question. After a moment he laughed aloud. “A mile is about two kilometers.”

Grace stopped to think about that. There was clearly something she was missing here. “Then why didn’t you just say two kilometers?”

The stars in front of them spun as the Sparrow turned towards their target. Grace could feel the main engines rumble their deep roar, and it made her smile. The Sparrow was such a cool ship.

“I take it the Duke thought he was being clever by only teaching you kids metric, huh?”

She stared at him now. “You’re going to have to speak English if you want me to understand.” She watched as the gaucho sighed and deflated.

“So uncivilized,” he muttered.

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Davey raised his arms and sighed as Yvonne stepped behind him and pulled the loose slack of his space suit. It was pain having the extra length bunched up at the shoulder, but at least she had gotten faster at the job in the last week. He and Matthew had left the ship to go out into vacuum every day to scrub off a thin film of grime that coated most of the Sparrow. The gaucho said the mess came from organic compounds they’d picked up landing on Titan.

Why they couldn’t just wait till they landed and do it in breathable air was something Davey would never understand. Instead, they spent hours fumbling in zero gee scouring the surface. He was obviously just scrounging around to find work. Make him earn his keep.

Yvonne finished and patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “There. All set and ready to go.”

Davey felt his cheeks burn red with shame, and he was glad Yvonne was behind him and unable to see his face. “Thanks, doc,” he mumbled. “I guess I’ll go join Abigail in the hold.” He walked toward the aft ladder. Each step was harder than the one before. At last, he stopped and turned around, chin buried in his neck. “I don’t get it,” he said.

Yvonne turned back towards him. “What’s that?”

“I don’t get it,” he repeated. “I don’t get why you of all people on this ship treat me decently. Matthew barely says a word to me unless it’s an instruction to do something. Grace will barely look at me, which, okay, I understand. And I wish Abigail wouldn’t look at me. It’s like she’s plotting my murder.”

“Give them time,” Yvonne said. “Trust can be earned. You’re starting at a big deficit, but keep working hard and someday you may be treated more gently.”

He balled his fists. “That doesn’t explain you though. You have more right than anyone to… to hate me.”

She smiled, but there was something wrong with her smile. Like it was poisoned. “Yes. I know.”

“Then why don’t you?” He’d taken several steps towards her without realizing it.

Matthew walked into the room, and Davey looked at his feet.

“Another time perhaps,” Yvonne said, standing and turning to Matthew. “What’s the situation?”

Davey frowned at the ignored question. Why wouldn’t she just answer?

“Cockpit’s yours,” Matthew said. “We’re at the asteroid. I’ll be on comms.” He looked at Davey. “You ready?”

“Does it matter?” he mouthed off before he could stop himself. Yvonne shook her head silently. She must have thought he was an idiot. And who ever knew what Matthew was thinking?

The man stared at him for a moment before shrugging. “No, I guess not. Let’s go.”

Whatever that was supposed mean.

Davey followed him down the ladder into the hold, where Abigail was waiting by the lift.

“Took you guys,” she said stifling a yawn. “How long is this going to take?”

Matthew opened a locker and pulled his suit on. “You’ll be back in bed soon enough. And tomorrow you won’t be the only one sleeping in.” He grabbed a pair of helmets and tossed one to Davey.

Davey pulled it over his head and began closing the latches one at a time. The suit was a different model than the one he was used to and obviously the wrong size, but he could function in it. The pushed up bunches in the arms and legs made movement awkward, especially when the suit pressurized. After he got the helmet situated, he looked back at Matthew and Abigail. They were trading verbal jabs now, something that seemed to happen anytime they were in the same room.

“I’m just saying that I might not recognize you without the hat.”

Matthew shrugged and lowered the lift. A shield snapped into place over the opening “I’m sure you’ll make due somehow.”

“I don’t know, you and Davey are both so small. You look alike in a spacesuit.”

Davey’s fist clenched instinctively before his brain worked out that Abigail had insulted Matthew rather than him. He still didn’t like the insinuation about his height but decided to let it pass. What was he going to do about Abigail anyway? The woman could out-bully him any day.

“Yes, Davey and I are practically twins.” Matthew deadpanned. “If you’re going to be this much fun at odd hours, we’re going to be taking more middle of the night missions. Oxygen on. Grab your thruster packs.”

Davey reached back to his tank and his suit pressurized. He grabbed the pack from the bench where it sat and tried to pull it on. The stupid bunches of suit made it hard to bend his arms far enough to snap the connectors into place. He half spun in a circle trying to reach the pack and felt his face redden as he made a fool of himself.

“I got it,” Matthew said putting a hand on his shoulder. Davey slumped as the man leaned over to quickly finish attaching the pack. “There we go.” The lift bottomed out and chimed. Abigail dove through the shield. “Hey, go through slow so you don’t take a bunch of atmosphere with you,” Matthew said, switching to comms. “I only okayed using the lift because we’re in a hurry. You start wasting all my ship's air and you’ll be taking the airlock.” He sighed and motioned Davey towards the lift.

He craned his neck to check the thruster pack for himself. “Thanks,” he mumbled and shuffled forward. He lowered himself through the shield, feeling its resistance tug against him. Abigail may not have been that worried about making the gaucho angry, but Davey wasn’t going to toy with danger like that. Gravity ended mere inches past the shield, and he drifted slowly toward where Abigail sat waiting on the edge of the lift.

“Don’t mention it,” Matthew’s voice crackled in his ear. “Not your fault I don’t have a suit that fits you. If this continues to be an issue, I’ll find something that’ll serve you better.”

Davey’s feet touched down on the lift and he engaged the magnets in his boots to stay put. He turned around to face the Sparrow’s aft and saw their target floating off the rear. It was a dark, nondescript rock, a little bigger than the Sparrow maybe. Not really much else to say about it. But if someone wanted to pay for it, that was their business.

“So how are we going to tow that thing, Cole?” Abigail asked. “I bet it’s going to be a royal pain to secure.”

“You’d lose that bet. I used to do this solo. With the three of us, it’ll be a pleasant diversion. Yvonne, you there?”

“Ready and waiting,” her voice returned at once.

“Good, go ahead and expose the tow lines and turn on the guide lasers.”

“I’ll have them on by the time you’re ready.”

Matthew turned to them and smiled. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll walk you two through the first line.” He pushed off the lift and drifted towards the rear of the Sparrow. Abigail and Davey followed with a touch of steam from their thruster packs.

Despite the lack of sleep, Davey felt the usual excitement. He’d always enjoyed zero gee, at least until Matthew had jumped him back at the habitat. He hadn’t maneuvered himself onto the Duke’s fuel missions purely for Grace’s sake. Being small wasn’t so much a problem when you were alone with the stars. Everyone, even Abigail, seemed small against the endless black.

Matthew led them to the starboard engine. Davey gave it a wide berth, not wanting to find out if the housing was still hot.

“See these hatches?” Matthew gestured to three dark holes that had opened in the aft. “Each of these has a tow drill and a guide laser. Sharon, if you’ll reach into the closest opening.”

Abigail moved to the opening, reached her arm in, and slowly guided a two-meter long cylinder out of the cavity. “How are we supposed to anchor this to…”

“Let’s go visit our M-type, I’ll show you,” he said. “Sharon, if you’ll bring the equipment.” With that, he pushed off the Sparrow towards the asteroid.

They followed him. The tow drill was attached to the Sparrow by a steel cable as thick as Davey’s arm that slowly fed as Abigail guided the equipment. Davey noticed that the asteroid was further away than he expected, easily two hundred meters. Which meant the rock was bigger than he thought. Maybe twice the Sparrow’s size.

At last, the trio touched down on the dark surface with puffs of steam to slow their approach. Matthew opened a side panel on the cylinder to reveal a lit control panel. He touched a few buttons, and the nose of the device opened into a wicked looking drill bit. “Now we just have to look around to spot the guide laser. There it is. Looks like we drifted a ways.”

A red point of light shone on the rough surface of the meteor. Matthew maneuvered the drill over to the laser and lowered the point till it was just above the surface.

“Okay, so the lasers show us where to drill so the tow lines are evenly spaced,” Abigail said. “How are we going to control the drill in zero gee?”

Matthew laughed. “You’re gonna like this part.” He tapped a few more buttons on the control panel and eight legs extended out from the body of the cylinder until they caught the face of the asteroid. “The legs will help keep it pointed where it needs to point and…” he touched a final set of buttons. At the rear of the cylinder, three tiny rear-facing rockets popped out. Davey’s eyes went wide. This was cooler than he was expecting. “The rockets provide the force for the drill. Keep clear.”

Davey and Abigail moved back. Matthew punched a button and a screen counted down from ten. Matthew gripped a pair of hand holds on the cylinder, and at zero, the drill began to spin and the rockets flared. “I’m only here to make sure it remains steady for the first few seconds,” he said. The rumble of the drill transmitted through his hands and into his comm. It silenced as soon as he stopped talking and the transmission clipped. For as many times as Davey had been in vacuum, he was still a little weirded out by the silence.

Matthew let go of the handles and drifted away. “The drill will keep turning until the inner cylinder kaleidoscopes its full length into the asteroid. Should be about finished now.” A light flashed on the screen and the rockets went dark. “And now the last stage. The interior cylinder will drill a couple dozen horizontal cross braces into the rock. And with that…” he closed the panel. “We’re done. Only five more tow drills.”

“Not so bad,” Abigail admitted. Davey laughed to himself. He could tell that she was more impressed than she was letting on. “What do you need us to do?”

“Sharon, I need you to retrieve the three tow drills near the port side engine. Davey, if you’ll get the remaining two on the starboard side. And be careful. They may not weigh anything in zero-gee, but they’ve still got more than enough inertia to damage themselves or you if you get careless. Bring em in nice and slow and I’ll put the drills to work. Get at it.”

Davey pushed off the asteroid, giving a generous puff of steam to push himself in the right direction. Ahead of him he saw Abigail. She’d been a bit more liberal with her thruster pack. Probably harder to crush your own bones when you’re armored like a bulkhead. Davey slowed himself and drifted to a stop at the second hatch by the starboard engine. He reached into the cavity and slowly guided the piece of equipment out. He frowned. It was quite a bit larger than he was. There was no way he was going to be able to tuck the whole cylinder under his arm like Abigail had.

He wrapped both his arms around the tow drill, hugging it to himself and pointed his feet at the asteroid. He gave a blast of steam to push him in what he now considered to be down. Might take him a minute to get there like this, but at least he would get there.

“How’s it going out there?” Yvonne asked into their comms.

“Good, tow drill one is installed with two more on the way,” Matthew replied. “Scopes still look nice and quiet?”

“Nothing on the scopes. You’ll be the first to know if that changes.”

Davey’s tow drill was nearly halfway to the asteroid, its cable slowly feeding out from the Sparrow. He looked beneath him and saw that Abigail had already reached her destination. Matthew drifted over to her, took the device, and prepped the drill to anchor it into the asteroid. Abigail pushed off to head back towards the Sparrow.

“Taking your sweet time, Davey?” she asked as she passed him.

He clenched his jaw and knew he had better ignore her. His mouth got the better of him. “You’re one to brag. It’s not fair with that tin can you’re wearing.”

“Life’s not fair, kid,” she retorted.

Davey glanced at his feet. The asteroid was close now, and he used his pack to slow his descent. The extra mass made it take a lot longer to slow than he anticipated, but he gently touched down. “Don’t call me a kid. I bet I’d be faster than you if you weren’t in your precious armor.”

“Sure you would be. Either way, me and the armor are a package deal.”

He chose to ignore her and looked around for the laser mark. It was several meters away. He must have drifted further than he realized. With some difficulty, he moved the tow drill into position by the time Matthew reached him.

“Thanks, Davey, I’ll take it from here. Don’t let her get under your skin. She lives for that sort of thing.”

She laughed. “This is an open comm you know. I can hear you.”

“You were supposed to hear me,” Matthew said. He nodded at Davey and got to work setting up the drill.

Davey pushed away and headed back toward the Sparrow. He never quite knew what to make of Matthew. Expecting to be scrubbing the hold and hull alone, Davey had been surprised when Matthew rolled up his sleeves, tossed aside his hat, and worked beside him. They had toiled in silence with little conversation for several days on the way to Callisto and for the next few after that. Davey couldn’t really complain. He’d been glad for the help, even if he didn’t understand it.

Mostly he was just glad he hadn’t been tossed out the airlock.

Who knows where Grace would be now if that had happened? His face twisted in pain. She hadn’t spoken to him in days outside of the one time she yelled at him again for being stupid. The worst part was that Davey didn’t really know how to fix that. The more he tried to make life better for her, the more he screwed things up.

He mumbled a curse as the tears stung his eyes.

His life was nothing but work for people that hated him. And for the first time, he missed life at the habitat.

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Matthew finished the fourth tow drill and looked back towards the Sparrow. As far as plans went, this was going off pretty well. Two more drills and he’d have Yvonne turn on the winches to pull up the slack on the cables. They’d be ready to get out of here.

Couldn’t come any sooner as far as he was concerned. In his experience jobs didn’t usually go this well. You ran into seven-foot armored women, shadowy government men, or creepy Dukes with armies of children.

“So I gotta admit, Cole,” Sharon’s voice drifted over the comm. “These tow drills are pretty ingenious. They standard on Model 42s or did you get them added?”

“Ha. No, they’re aftermarket,” Davey arrived with the fifth drill and Matthew joined him at the laser indicated site. “You can imagine they aren’t cheap. Maintenance is pretty high for them too, which eats into the profit earned while using them. Absolute fastest way to snag an asteroid and run, though. Thankfully I didn’t pay for them. Previous owner did.”

Davey drifted away to watch him run the drill.

The kid sure was quiet tonight. He never talked too much, at least not when Matthew was around, but this was different Matthew set up the drill’s spider legs, deployed the rockets, and then gestured to the cylinder. “Well, do you want to run it or not?”

Very little body language could be seen through a space suit, but Matthew thought he saw the kid startle. “Me?” he asked pointing at his chest.

Matthew looked around. “I’m not seeing anyone else out here.”

“You just said they were expensive.”

Matthew crossed his arms in front of his chest. “You want to do it or not?”

The kid drifted over. “Okay, what do I…”

“Got a ship on scopes,” Yvonne interrupted. “Same weight class as the Sparrow. Three hundred... Miles? Why are the scopes set on Imperial?”

Matthew chose to ignore that. “Can you patch me to an open comm? Let’s see if they’re talkative.”

“Yes. I can… probably? Give me a minute I’ll figure out where that is in the menus…”

“Sorry, Davey,” Matthew said turning to the tow drill and getting ready to fire it up. We need to finish this up. Another time. I hope. Head on back to the Sparrow.”

“Fine,” Davey said and jetted off towards the Sparrow.

He was in a mood tonight, but Matthew didn’t have time to deal with that right now. “Sharon, what’s your ETA on the last drill?”

“Twenty seconds. Who are these guys?”

“I don’t know. Another freelancer crew probably. Yvonne, how’s that open comm line coming?”

“Almost… Okay done. Your second comm channel will be an open broadcast channel.”

Matthew switched to the second channel. “Unknown ship identify yourself. This rock’s already been claimed.”

There was a moment’s silence before a familiar voice broke into Matthew’s ear. “How long has it been, Cole, since the last time we met. What? A year maybe?”

Matthew knew that voice. “Not long enough, Ewan,” Matthew said, finishing up with the fifth tow drill. “Like I said, this rock’s already claimed.” He pushed off from the asteroid and over to where Sharon waited with the final drill. Better make this quick.

“That’s not what I’m seeing. I see you and your little birdy floating by an asteroid with cold engines. It’ll be just like three years ago when me and my crew swooped in and…”

“Thanks, Ewan, I don’t need a reminder.

“...scored that bounty right under your nose. You should have seen the look on your face.”

“It was priceless I’m sure. Look, Ewan, I’m busy. Can we talk later?”

Ewan laughed heartily. “Aye, we can. I’ll give you a call back after we’ve secured the prize.”

“Old friend?” Sharon asked.

“Sure. We’ll go with that. Listen up everyone we’ve got trouble. If we don’t wrap this up right now, we’ll end up walking away empty-handed.”

“Give the orders Matthew,” Yvonne said. “We’re ready.”

Matthew began the final drill. He looked back up at the Sparrow and wondered if there was enough time. No matter. Nothing for it but to try. “Yvonne warm up the engines. Get the Sparrow ready to go. Let out the rest of the slack on the cables. And stand by on the maneuvering jets. You should be able to rotate twenty to thirty degrees without tugging on the asteroid.”

“What’s that going to gain us?”

“Maybe an opportunity to use the thumper.

“Who’s going to…?”

“Davey you back to the Sparrow yet?”

“Just made it to the lift. What do I need to do?”

“I need you on the thumper turret. You are to shoot at the other ship and only at the other ship. If you hit the asteroid and break it up, we lose everything. Is that understood?” The final drill finished its job, and Matthew double checked to make sure it was secure.

“Understood. Heading to the thumper.” Matthew didn’t think he sounded all that confident, but there weren’t any other options at the moment. There was no way he was letting a twelve-year-old fire a weapon at other human beings.

“You done Cole? We heading back?” Sharon’s voice was hesitant. Maybe she was nervous. Good. This might get tricky.

“Nope.”

“Then what are we doing?”

“Ewan’s ship, the Red Dragon, will be on us before we get out. He’ll probably make a quick pass, take a few shots at us and drop off some men to cut our lines. You and I get to chase them away. They cut our cables, we lose.”

“I don’t like it,” she replied. “If we’re out here how do we get the rock away from them?”

“Yvonne’s going to get us moving and frameshift us out of here.”

The comm was silent for a few moments before Yvonne replied. “A little practice would have been nice before making me fly the Sparrow in a combat situation.”

“Noted. Can you do it?”

She hesitated for the briefest of seconds. “Yes.”

“Make it happen. Let us know before you burn the engines. Sharon and I will need to be secure first.”

“Be careful out there you two. Here comes the other ship.”

Matthew looked out into the black of space. Sure enough there it was. The Red Dragon was larger than the Sparrow, which was appropriate given their names. Its braking thrusters were firing as it slowed from its intercept speed to something more manageable. When it closed to just a few miles, two front-facing chain guns opened fire. Bullet’s raked across the bottom of the Sparrow, sending sparks and shards of metal spiraling out into space. The Dragon twisted away on maneuvering jets and blasted past the asteroid.

“Cole!” Sharon shouted.

“I see them.” Four small figures had bailed from the Dragon as it passed, their thruster packs working overtime to slow them down. “Keep them away from the cables.”

“We using lethal force?”

“Not unless they do.”

“They just shot up the Sparrow!” Sharon shouted.

“Just gunfire. She can handle it. Yvonne, any damage?”

“Nothing to report.”

“See. Ewan and his crew may be job poachers, but they’re not killers. Probably just trying to spook us or disable the Sparrow. If things get serious and someone pulls a weapon on you, by all means, take em out.” He pushed off the asteroid and turned to face the oncoming enemies. They were now cutting a course straight for the cables. “Just look at it like a dust-up between rivals. A nice little fistfight in a saloon.” He used his thruster pack to pick up speed.

“And by a saloon you mean space,” Sharon said. Matthew looked back at her. She was close on his heels, shield out and deployed. That ought to send them scattering.

“Right,” he said. “In space.”

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Yvonne sat in the pilot’s chair. Matthew’s seat. She carefully tapped a few controls, starting the engine warm-up process. It would take several minutes from a cold start. Shutting them down at all was a mistake. She glanced at the monitor to her side, confirming for the third time since the Red Dragon had strafed them with gunfire that nothing significant had broken.

Either they didn’t have thumpers or Matthew’s acquaintance really wasn’t out for blood. The armor of the Model 42 was supposed to be pretty tough. “We’ll see how tough a nut to crack you are,” she mumbled.

Yvonne wasn’t sure if she was referring to the Sparrow or herself.

“I’m at the thumper. What do I do?” Davey’s voice called out over the comm.

“Shoot at the enemy ship,” Grace suggested unhelpfully, and a bit sarcastically.

“Thanks, sis. I mean how? No one exactly taught me how to use this thing since I’ve been kinda imprisoned in my room.”

Matthew replied tersely. “I’m about to be in a fight, Yvonne can you walk him through it?”

“Matthew Cole, you and I are having a long conversation when this is over,” she bit back. “And I’m getting a raise. Davey, look for the green button on the right panel that will power on the turret.”

“Got it.”

“Okay, the actual controls for the turret should be self-explanatory. Trigger to fire. There’s a gauge that shows the charge in the capacitor banks. Fire too quickly and drain them and they’ll have to cycle. Now flip the switch on the left panel. That should turn on the targeting HUD.” She walked him through the last few steps. “I wouldn’t take a shot until you think you’ve got a hit. As soon as they realize the aft has teeth they’re going to avoid it.”

“Right, I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.

“Yvonne, the Dragon is coming back around,” Grace was leaning over the sensor display. “Fourteen klicks and closing.”

Yvonne’s eyes widened in surprise and she wondered what other skills Grace had. “Is Davey going to get a shot this pass?”

The girl shook her head. “They’re coming from starboard.”

Yvonne reached over to the maneuvering thrusters. Jets of steam fired into space rotating the Sparrow’s aft a few degrees towards the oncoming ship. “How about now? Davey do you have a shot.”

“No shot.”

“Five klicks,” Grace announced.

Gunfire began to ring off the hull, and Yvonne instinctively winced and covered her head. As the Dragon finished its pass, a red light flashed in the cockpit and a siren wailed through the Sparrow. Side compartments popped open with breathing masks. That wasn’t a good sign. That couldn’t possibly be good.

Grace got to the monitor before Yvonne did. “Hull punctured. Main hold and top hatch. We’re losing atmosphere. Computer says five minutes of breathable air left.”

Yvonne bit her lip. She could seal off the hold, but hard vacuum on the top deck would be a problem. She could use hull patches but how was she supposed to fly the Sparrow if she was also trying to keep it from getting torn apart?

Suddenly she felt a small hand on her. “I’ve got the hull,” Grace said.

“You know how to…?”

“Yep. All the kids on the habitat had to know how to use a hull patch in case of depressurization.”

Yvonne nodded slowly. “Alright, Grace. We’re counting on you to keep us breathing. Take an air mask. The air is gonna get thin very quickly.” Grace pulled a mask over her face and shoved the tank in her pocket. Yvonne could see the fear in the kid’s eyes and knew it was mirrored in her own.

A light turned green on the console. Engines were hot.

“Go on. We’ve got work to do.”

The girl ran from the cockpit and Yvonne turned back to the controls.

What had they gotten themselves into?

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Abigail had never actually fought in zero gee before. She imagined it wouldn’t be too bad if she had her boots magnetized on the hull of a ship. Free floating in open space trying to protect a series of cables was something she couldn’t have dreamed up if she tried.

It looked like their foes hadn’t noticed them perched on the asteroid and had gone straight for the cables.

She and Cole closed on them quickly.

“They’ve broken into teams of two,” she observed. “I’ve got the ones to the left.”

“Which left?” Cole hissed back.

“I don’t know…” Why did everything have to be so hard to describe in zero gee? A plasma torch flickered in the dark ahead of them. One of the teams had reached their cable. “I’ve got the one with the torch.”

“Copy that. Sharon, talk to me mid fight. We’re outnumbered and may have to dance in and out to keep them from cutting our lines.”

“Got it.”

The distance dwindled rapidly. She saw a spray of sparks shoot out from the cable as the saboteurs started to cut into it. Then she was on them. She slammed into the torch wielder shield first. The grav plate in her shield sent him spiraling away, limbs flailing. As she passed, she tried to reach out and grab the other enemy. She missed but managed to knick the heel of his boot sending him spinning. Unfortunately, he managed to grab hold of the cable and managed to regain control.

Abigail used her thruster to slow and then turn back towards the other assailant. He used his own pack to keep out of her reach. Holding onto the cable, he rocketed back towards the Sparrow.

“Oh no you don’t,” she shouted and turned to pursue.

He let go of the cable and turned, slipping around her, and diving after the slowly spinning plasma torch.

Abigail suddenly realized the mass and inertia of her armor was working against her. Her foes were going to be much more agile than she.

“Cole, I’m having a bit of trouble here…”

“I see, I’m on my way.”

Cole shot across in front of her, tackling the saboteur before he could reach the torch, sending them both tumbling. Okay, maybe he had a little more experience out here than she did. She spun around trying to see the other foes. The one she had sent packing with her shield had finally gotten control of his spin and was on the way back. The two Cole had scattered appeared to be trying to regroup with their comrade.

It was like swatting at a swarm of flies. How were they supposed to keep them away from the…?

“Matthew, Abigail!” Yvonne shouted over the comm. “Engines are hot. Get clear and let me know when you’re secure. Davey, get ready. I think I can get you a shot on the Dragon this time.” Abigail watched as the Sparrow rotated a few degrees in front of her. She could see the turret swiveling high on the aft between the engines. That meant the dragon was coming from behind, near the asteroid.

She turned and tried to get eyes on the ship. There above the asteroid. Its guns began to fire for the third time. A single blast from the Sparrow’s thumper answered in return. It ripped into the flank of the enemy ship, leaving a gaping wound in its side. The Dragon’s maneuvering jets flared red in response and it broke off its attack, leaving a trail of smoking debris in its wake. Abigail didn’t know how severe the damage to the ship was, but she hoped it was enough to dissuade pursuit.

“I got them!” Davey shouted. “I got them!”

Yvonne laughed aloud. “Great shot!”

“Abigail!” Cole called suddenly. She spun and saw him coming up behind her. “Grab a cable! Fall back to the asteroid.”

She obeyed and used the nearest cable as a guide to retreat to the rock. The Sparrow slowly rotated to face away from them again, and a fire began to light in the engines. Their feet touched down on the asteroid. “Clip on to the cable,” Cole commanded. “Yvonne ease up the throttle. Keep it nice and slow till the cables are taut.”

Suddenly Abigail realized why they had retreated to the asteroid. The Sparrow’s engines burned like newborn stars, and even a couple hundred meters away she could feel the force of the back blast. Thankfully the cables were anchored out wider than the engines, otherwise they would probably be roasted alive.

Abigail watched as the saboteurs scrambled out of the way of the asteroid as it slowly picked up speed behind the Sparrow. One of them nearly didn’t make it and only avoided becoming roadkill by mere seconds.

She turned to Cole. He squatted by the tow drill to better withstand the gees of acceleration. “So when do we get to go back inside?”

“Yeah, it’s going to be a bit,” he said. “Better get used to the view.”

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Grace ran back to the common room and dug into a tool cabinet. She carefully pulled out one of the centimeter-thick steel plates. With some difficulty, she managed to carry the thing with both arms back towards the thumper turret. The ladder that ran down to the hold also led up to the top hatch, whose controls glowed an angry color of red in warning. The outermost hatch had been torn to shreds by the hail of gunfire and the mechanism for the second hatch had been damaged causing it to malfunction and spring open.

A single bullet had pierced the innermost hatch. Grace looked up at the hole several feet above her head. She could feel the wind whistling past her as precious oxygen escaped into space.

Then the thought occurred to her that she’d have to climb the ladder carrying the weight of the steel patch. Her heart sank. She’d never be able to do both at the same time. Why had she been so stupid to think that she could do this?

From down the hall, Davey shouted “I got them! I got them!”

“Great. Now what do I do? “ she said to herself.

And then she remembered her bracelets. She set the patch on the floor and reaching out with her left arm seized the plate in the bracelet’s grip. It glowed icy-blue as she lifted the patch and pressed it against the hole. Holding it in place, she climbed the ladder with her free hand and reached up to the plate. Along its edge was a red strip of plastic. She gripped it between her fingers and pulled it away from the steel surface. The plastic separated two chemicals that when combined started to burn. Fire trailed along the outer edge of the patch as it welded itself into place.

Grace slid down the ladder, still holding the patch firmly in place with her bracelet. A few molten bit of steel hissed as they dripped to the floor. She tried not to imagine what would happen if one landed on her clothes.

All at once the fire went out, and the plate was fused in place. She smiled. Content that her repair job would hold, she ran back to the common room to grab another patch. This time she lifted it with her bracelets.

These things were going to come in handy.

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Ewan Hywel watched as the Sparrow’s frameshift device activated and both the asteroid and ship disappeared off the scopes. He ignored the red lights winking all over the console and pulled up the comm.

“You still there, Cole?”

“Been waiting on your call, Ewan. Just sitting back on my asteroid enjoying the view of my ship. What do you need?”

Ewan ran a hand through his blond hair and sat back in his seat. He’d noted the emphasis on the words ‘my asteroid’ and got the point. “You didn’t tell me you had yourself a crew these days. What happened to the ole’ Cole works alone thing?”

“It was kind of an accident. You know how life is.”

“For an accident, it sure was a fortunate one for you. You recruit anyone I know? Your crew seemed to handle itself well.”

There was a pause before Cole answered. “You sure you want the answer to that, Ewan?”

“I asked, didn’t I?”

“Fine, it’s your own pride that’ll take the hit. First I’ve got the Shield Maiden of Mars. I’m sure you’ve heard of her.”

“My men already reported back about her. She gave them quite the scare.”

“Well, I’ve also got a doctor. She’s flying the Sparrow right now. It’s uhh…. Today is the first time she’s ever flown a ship.”

Ewan whistled. “Pretty trusting of you.”

“You didn’t give me a choice. Then I’ve got a couple of kids. Seventeen and twelve. The twelve-year-old apparently ran around and patched the holes you punched in my ship and the seventeen year old punched that big one in yours.”

The line went silent. “That’s it?” Ewan asked, incredulous.

“Pretty much.”

Ewan laughed. “Well, I’ve been had. You deserve your prize this time Cole.”

“Thanks, Ewan. Find your own next time. How’s the damage?”

Ewan’s eyes flicked back to the red lights blinking on his console. “Could be worse. We’ll limp into port for repairs. The Ddraig Goch’s taken worse beatings before.”

“First, Ewan, you don’t actually speak Welsh. Second, I’m pretty sure your ship is registered as the Red Dragon.”

“Gotta do something to remember the land of my fathers, right? Enjoy your score, Cole, but you owe me a drink for the damage.”

“Sure. And you’ll buy mine for the same reason. Take care, Ewan.” The comm went silent.

Ewan shook his head again at the thought that he just got beat by a crew of amateurs and turned back to the console to help his crew sort out the mess of damage.

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An hour later the crew of the Sparrow lounged around the common room, exhausted from too few hours of sleep but still too wide awake from the excitement to go back to bed. Matthew sat head in hands at the table, campero tossed aside and forgotten for the time. He yawned and stretched his arms.

“Wake me when breakfast is ready.”

“If you fall asleep, I can’t promise we won’t eat your bacon,” Yvonne said from her position at the small stove. She had generously offered to fix an early breakfast to celebrate the victory and was frying up a few of the eggs and vat-grown bacon strips they’d bought on Callisto.

“I’ll just go ahead and promise that, yes, I will eat anyone’s bacon that’s too slow,” Sharon said. “It smells heavenly.”

“Unless I get yours first,” Grace said sitting down at the table.

Sharon poked the girl in the side, and she jumped with a squeal. “Don’t start with me, Grace. I know all your weaknesses.”

Matthew shook his head. This was giving him a headache “No one is eating anyone’s bacon. We bought enough so everyone could have two slices. That’s it. No more. No less.”

“Unless you fall asleep first,” Yvonne added. She stepped over to the table and placed a skillet full of eggs and bacon in the middle. “No cheating,” she said eyeing Sharon.

“What? Why does everyone think I’m the one that would cheat?”

Everyone stared at her for a moment and then there was a hearty round of laughter that even Davey joined in on. They filled their plates. Everyone got a pile of scrambled eggs and precisely two slices of vat-grown bacon as instructed. The noise of eating and clattering utensils replaced the sounds of conversation.

Matthew tore one of his pieces of bacon in half and ate it thoughtfully looking at the members of his crew sitting at the table in front of him. How had this even happened?

He’d thought he was done playing shepherd, and here he was with a new flock.

He stirred his eggs once and then set his fork down.

“You all did good today,” he said.

They paused and looked at him.

“All of you. You did things you weren’t trained or prepared for and, well, you all came through. Grace, Davey, you two as well.” He hesitated. “Davey I’ll lift your house arrest. You’ll have a strict curfew, and you’re still prohibited from possessing anything that could be used as a weapon, but you’ll be allowed a little more freedom now.”

Davey’s eyes went wide and then narrowed. “So you won’t let me have a weapon, but you’ll let me shoot a big one at an enemy ship.”

“Or you can spend your time locked in your room,” Matthew said.

“Nope,” the teen said shaking his head quickly. “I’m good, thanks.”

Matthew cracked a wry smile. “That’s what I thought.”

Sharon dumped another spoonful of sugar into her coffee. “So was that supposed to be some sort of inspirational speech from the captain? I thought it was kind of lacking.”

“I thought it was nice,” Grace said. Matthew noticed that she’d already eaten both of her bacon slices. Kid needed to learn how to slow down and enjoy the finer things in life.

“Well, that’s good,” Matthew said, “Because now I’ve got bad news.”

The crew wilted before his eyes.

“Repairs for the Sparrow are going to cut into the personal allowances from this mission. It went from being lucrative to expensive with the repairs we’ll have to make.”

“Are we poor?” Grace asked. Davey elbowed her.

“No. But we’re not rich,” Matthew said. “I do have some good news though.”

“What’s that?” Davey asked.

Matthew smiled. “There’s always another job to take.”

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