I knew date night was over the moment I saw Jimmy Chong’s moon-shaped face in the decorative, circular mirror. He hovered near the entrance to the dimly lit Imperial Dragon restaurant and peered around, undoubtedly looking for me. But it was Dollie’s first night back from her latest run to Earth, and I’d deliberately left my Scroll in our apartment.
She placed her chopsticks on the ornately patterned serving plate with a click, swallowing a morsel of her Spider Rolls. “Everything okay?”
I slid my chair sideways a little, to keep her between me and Chong. The walls of the restaurant were a moving Solido projection that complemented the small lake outside, making it appear as though the building was on an island surrounded by water, while the roof above showed a sky teeming with soaring dragons. I hoped the visuals would throw my deputy off and he’d fail to spot me amid the red and gold decoration. “Chong just came in.”
Dollie frowned. “I thought you took the night off?”
“Something must have come up.”
“Well, let him handle it. You’re not the only engineer here.”
She was right. My position as head of engineering meant I was responsible for the operation of the entire station, but right now I didn’t want to know about the problem. It got lonely when Dollie was on her supply trips, and I was looking forward to sharing some intimate time with her. “If he’s searching for me though, it must be serious.”
A skilled engineer, with an easy-going manner that made him a good middle-manager, Chong was experienced enough that I let him handle many of the day-to-day operations on Taikong Gaogu. He was also a little older than many of the station personnel, the PanAsian Confederation being more eager to ship off its younger population than those who were more entrenched in their existing lives.
I scooped up one of my tempura shrimp and chewed on its delicate flavor. It wasn’t shrimp in the sense that it had been fished out of an ocean. The water tanks that formed the station’s four outer layers were there purely to provide the population with drinking water and serve as a radiation barrier. Despite that, PAC companies were past-masters at growing artificial meat, and shellfish was one of their specialties, a bonus for any of their employees with a seafood habit like mine.
I edged to the left, peeking around Dollie and a red, tasseled lantern hanging from the roof. There was no sign of Chong. Hopefully he’d taken his search elsewhere.
“He’s gone,” I whispered.
“Good.” Dollie raised her eyebrows, her full lips curving into a pout. “I have designs on your body after dinner.”
“You think I’m that easy?”
The Imperial Dragon was one of our favorite spots, located on level two, one down from the high-end housing sited at the middle of the hollow station. This deck had a similar amount of landscaping to the high-rent zone, but to me it seemed a better approximation of Earth because the odd effect of the “ground” curving into the sky above was hidden by the fake sky roof.
Our table was near the back of the restaurant next to one of the windows. At this time of day, the lighting was emulating sunset, painting the water a vivid pink, mixed with greeny blues. It was an amazing effect, made more realistic by the fresh breeze drifting off the real water outside. The lakes were one of the station’s best features, even though they were a pain in the ass to maintain.
I raised my cup of baijiu in a toast. “Welcome home.”
“Ganbei.” She clicked her cup against mine and swallowed the contents in one.
I did the same and reached for the bottle to refill our glasses.
“Please excuse this one.” Chong appeared from behind a thick bamboo plant, bowing slightly. “There is a big problem, Mr. Ballen.”
Dollie gave Chong a look that would have withered the most determined of people, but he was focused on me.
“What is it, Jimmy?” His body language told me it was serious. “Spit it out.”
He looked puzzled for a moment, then appeared to realize I wasn’t actually asking him to spit. “We must avoid panic.”
I glanced at Dollie, and she shook her head as if warning me not to go. I certainly didn’t want to but slid my seat back and stood. Chong made for the door, and I hesitated. Dollie’s face looked like a thunderstorm closing in, with me set to be at the center of the maelstrom.
I shrugged. “This should only take a minute.”
She didn’t reply, and I hurried after Chong, eager to get him off my back.
He was outside smoking a pungent SootheStick and looked up as I came out. “Sorry, boss.”
“When are you going to start calling me Ballen?” The rank smell of burnt lemongrass in the smoke tingled my nose. “What’s the problem?”
Chong shuffled. “We’ve lost comms with one of the WT100s.”
The WT100s were robot barges that fetched raw materials from the asteroid mining operations. “Okay, send a tug to pull it in for repairs.”
“It’s already on its way in.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Collision course.” Chong took a long pull on his SootheStick and blew it out slowly. “Impact in three hours.”
“How the hell did it get so close without anyone knowing it was faulty?”
“It was working fine until about thirty minutes ago.” Chong shrugged. “Then it failed a routine comm check. The techs are trying to re-establish control, but it doesn’t look good.”
“Blow it up.”
“Destruct circuits are dead.” Chong examined the gravel below his feet. “Besides, it’s too close.”
Now I knew why he looked so sheepish. When the asteroid mining project first started, I’d recommended the barges were equipped with a secondary backup control system and had been overruled. If the barge was as close as he said, the point defense systems would be virtually useless too, as destroying it would create a cloud of debris that would tear through large sections of the station. And with so little time, it would be impossible to move out of its path.
“What does Iwasaki say?”
“The commander has ordered evacuation of the docking ring, and areas adjacent.” Chong shook his head. “I don’t think there’s enough time.”
Iwasaki was the municipal leader and ran the station with a strict by-the-book approach. His background was one hundred percent military, and imagination wasn’t one of his strong points. It was his decision not to implement the backups, claiming it was too costly, but the truth was he didn’t like me. And although the PAC had signed up as part of the Combined Earth Settlement Authority, he still treated Dollie and me like the enemy.
“If we lose the ring, the station will be shut down.” A chill breeze seemed to crawl up my back. “And if we can’t get supplies in, people will be dying in short order.”
While the station’s systems were designed to ruthlessly recycle, filter, and scrub as much of its atmosphere and water supplies as possible, we were dependent on the steady flow of raw materials from the nearby Liànzi asteroid field.
Chong crushed his SootheStick into the receptacle by the restaurant entrance, then lit another. “I’ve explained, but…”
I shook my head, imagining the response Chong would have received from Iwasaki, and knowing all too well that the engineer would always defer to his authority, no matter how bad a decision it was.
“So, what do you want from me? We have an entire crew. Hasn’t anyone got any ideas?”
Chong’s face flushed and he cleared his throat. “They think it’s too late and the only option is evacuation.”
“And lose half the station?”
I glanced back at the restaurant. Dollie would be wondering where the hell I’d got to. But if nothing stopped the barge, the whole section could blow out.
“I’ll be at docking port eleven in”—I checked the time—”seven minutes. Make sure there’s a Hopper ready for me. And get my wife to safety.”
“What are you going to do?” Chong’s mouth was hanging open.
I grimaced. “The impossible.”
Without looking back, I jogged to the nearest elevator, the movement making me dizzy as the station spun lazily on its axis. I stabbed the button for the floor connecting to the docking ports, and felt giddier as the elevator rapidly rose toward the center of the drum that made up what was called the eastern section of Taikong Gaogu.
What took the most getting used to in a rotating habitat was the odd shifts in gravity. For the most part, it wasn’t pronounced, but as you moved into or out from the center, the gravity decreased and increased. Do that slowly and you didn’t notice it, but do it fast and it could leave you as wobbly as a cruise passenger experiencing their first Nor’wester.
When I reached the center, I was in ZeeGee and my stomach settled. I’ve plenty of experience in microgravity. It was only moving between the different levels of spin that affected me. The docking ring was a stationary structure between the two contra-rotating east and west sections. Spokes led to a ring of docking bays, both large industrial ones, as well as the smaller ones used by passenger ships or maintenance vessels. Eleven was one of the latter, but more significantly, the one closest to my suit locker.
The locker area was deserted, not surprising given the fact that a thousand tonnes of assorted asteroid ore was scheduled to arrive like an out-of-control express train at any moment. My locker slid open when I brushed my thumb over the lock, and the rack trundled out holding my suit.
This wasn’t my old suit that had taken me through many years of working in space. After my adventures on and off the Shokasta, that one was so beat up that not even its mother would have loved it. Luckily, when I took on the job of herding cats on Taikong Gaogu, the Nakaji-Wei company insisted on equipping the senior staff with brand new suits, complete with the finest lime green corporate color scheme. While the color reminded me of the aftereffects of too much cheap vodka, it was certainly a good high-viz option, and the suits themselves were decent quality.
After pulling on the lower half, I wriggled into the upper, locked the connecting ring closed, and moved toward the airlock holding my helmet. If Chong had done his job there’d be a Hopper sealed against the outside. I clicked my helmet in place and switched the comm-set to a frequency usually used for diagnostic purposes by control technicians.
“Bob, where are you and the boys?”
“Waddya want, ya bum?”
The voice had a distinct Brooklyn accent. “LocRep. Immediately.”
“I’m scanning the outer shell, rib thirty-three, one-seven-nine degrees. Harry’s over by—”
“Joe? Is that you?” Harry’s voice cut in. “Boy it’s good to hear from you again. We’ve been working on the outer surface scans for weeks now.”
“This gig is for the boids,” Bob said. “Never anything to blow up.”
Bob, Harry, and the third in the team, Moses, had originally been part of the mining operation I’d worked on at my last job. Technically, their programming belonged to that project, but I always liked to keep my own backups. I’d uploaded them into three of the maintenance bots and had them running safety checks outside.
“Sorry, Bob, but we’ve got some excitement happening. Thought you guys might want in on the fun.”
“We’re going to blow something up? See, I told you not to bad-mouth Joe when he wasn’t around.” Harry was always the most tolerant of the three personalities.
“Not exactly.” I glanced at the display showing the outside of the airlock. A crew Hopper was docked there, and I silently sent thanks to Chong. “Mose? Where are you?”
“Hello, Joe. I’m at the West solar array, section five.”
As usual, Moses sounded like his pet cat had died. I checked my mental picture of the station. He was too far away to get to us. “Okay, you stay put. We’ll handle things.”
“Ballen?” The new voice had the unmistakable sharp, nasal quality identifying it as Reiji Iwasaki, the station leader. “Report to me your whereabouts, please.”
“I’m in heaven…”
“I have no patience for your injudicious attitude, Mr. Ballen. We have a serious situation on our hands.”
The airlock slid open and I pulled myself through, squirming over to the pilot’s chair and strapping myself in. “Injudicious? That’s a new one. I’m aware of the problem.”
“How quickly can we evacuate the docking ring and surrounding areas?”
“Not fast enough, and if you make a public announcement we’ll lose as many people in the panic as the collision.”
Iwasaki was silent for a minute. “We are making every effort to contact the rogue barge. The technicians tell me they’re confident that given time they can regain control.”
After closing the airlock, I undocked the Hopper, spinning the craft around and moving away from the station. Time was the one thing we didn’t have. “Let me know how that works out for you.”
I brought up a list of transponder IDs and picked out the nearest. When I checked its approach, it was closer than I’d expected. Iwasaki’s men must have sat on this before releasing the information.
“Ballen? Have you left the station?” Iwasaki’s voice was tight with scorn. “I have a report from traffic control of the launch of an unauthorized utility vehicle.”
“Donut run. Want me to pick you something up?”
“Whatever madness you’re planning, Ballen, I advise you to reconsider and leave it to the people who know how to handle these things.”
I made several squeaks and buzzes. “Please repeat. I’m having difficulty with the radiation.” I switched channels to talk to the bots. “Bob, Harry? I’m in Hopper HG-665A. Lock on my signal and hold station. It’s Friday night and we’re going to run blocker.”
“You’re nuts, it’s Tuesday,” Bob’s voice came back.
“Just do it, Bob. We’re short on time.”
“Alright already, don’t lose your chute.”
Ten minutes later, the ball-like bots sidled up alongside the Hopper. “Grab on,” I said. “No point you guys burning up your fuel.”
A couple of metallic clunks reverberated through the hull as they fastened themselves to the craft, and I double-checked the barge’s trajectory. It was closing steadily, and I wasn’t sure we’d get there in time to do anything useful. After feeding the numbers into the flight computer, I told it to execute a long burn to close in quickly. It was a wasteful maneuver, but every second would make a difference.
The gray surface of the eastern section slipped under the ship as we hurtled forward. The acceleration was hard enough to push me back into the seat, but I wished I had more Delta-V available.
As we traveled, I ran through the options. I could move in front and use the Hopper’s engines to slow the barge, but a few calculations told me that wouldn’t be enough to stop it in time. The difficulty was overcoming the inertia involved. The barges were twenty meters long and ten wide. Loaded they had about as much mass as an office block. Not something to simply bat away.
I did some ball-park calculations. At thirty meters per second, the barge had a force of a medium-sized asteroid, and the Hopper didn’t have enough Delta-V to stop it, even with Bob and Harry helping. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on stopping it.
It took over an hour to match speeds with the barge. By that time, the ranging system told me there was less than sixty minutes until impact. Precious little time to do what was necessary.
Barges were rudimentary vehicles with a thin shell supported by a frame of girders to provide the rigidity for handling. I brought the Hopper up to the barge’s framework and used the manipulator arms to grab it from below at the waist supports—the strongest part.
The tubes were pitted and scraped from multiple trips to the asteroid mines, making me wonder how well the skin would hold up to the inertia of the ore inside when I tried to move it. I directed Bob and Harry to grab hold of the front and rear stanchions and was all set to give the word when my comm-set buzzed into life again.
“I don’t believe you stood me up, you bastard.” It was Dollie, and she sounded madder than hell. “How could you leave me like that?”
“I didn’t have time to explain. I’ll make it up to you.”
“You couldn’t resist the chance to be a hero again, could you?”
“It’s not like that.” I stiffened at Dollie’s frosty tone. “I’m trying to save the station.”
“You should have married this station instead of me. You spend more time taking care of it.”
“Can we discuss this later?” A strident edge slipped into my voice.
“You think there’ll be a later, Joe Ballen?”
There might not be if I didn’t start soon. “Dollie—tell me you’re safe.”
“I’m in one of the emergency refuges, away from the docking ring, if that’s what you mean.” Her voice dropped two full octaves. “But if you get killed doing another crazy stunt, don’t expect me to—”
I cut her off, feeling like the bastard she thought I was. “Bob, Harry? Get ready to push. In five. Four. Three. Two. One.”
Not daring to trust the autopilot with such a move, I controlled the Hopper’s thrusters by hand, ramping the throttles up to full. The ship shuddered, bucking against the barge’s framing with the remote manipulator arms locked around the thickest stanchion.
“Hey, Ballen.” It was Bob. “It ain’t moving much, you schmuck. This was your big plan?”
“Don’t talk to Joe like that, you bully,” Harry hissed. “He’s doing his best.”
I checked the range. We’d already passed the end of the east drum, which meant that we were around six minutes from colliding. To make things worse, the damn barge had started rolling along its axis, like a slowly turning bullet. It was likely down to the uneven forces we’d applied pushing it. Normally the barge’s attitude thrusters would have countered the movement, but they were off-line too. And the Hopper’s systems wouldn’t have the power to compensate.
Grabbing a remote unit, I clipped it onto my belt, then snagged the seal on my helmet closed. “Hang on, guys. I’m going to take a little walk.”
I unclipped my harness and floated over to the airlock door. On a ship this small there was no inner and outer hatch, and the usual procedure for doing an EVA was to bleed the atmosphere from the whole cabin, but that would take precious minutes.
Instead, I hit the emergency release and moved away as the display flashed red—the warning counting down from ten. I locked my arms around a stanchion as the timer hit zero. A loud bang sounded, immediately dying as the door blew out and the air left the compartment.
The turbulence lasted only a few seconds. The inside of the Hopper wasn’t big enough to contain a lot of atmosphere. A rim of hoarfrost formed around the airlock’s metal frame as the moisture in the air flash froze.
“What was that?” Harry called out. “You okay, Joe?”
“Sure. You know me, I’m like a cat.” One that had already used up six or seven of its lives, I thought.
“That dope is just about smart enough to be dangerous,” Bob sniped.
I swung through the door and curled around onto the Hopper’s outer hull. As with all spaceships, the hull was dotted with emergency handholds, and I used them to drag myself onto the barge’s giant frame.
There was a central “brain” that controlled the autopilot functions at the top of the ship. It didn’t provide much hope but was the only trick I had left. I didn’t dare float free and was forced to waste time scrambling up and around the frame to the other side of the ship. But without a maneuvering unit I’d float away on the first thrust.
The control panel was where it should be, and I removed the fasteners holding the cover on. I had an almost irresistible urge to look up and check how far off we were, and fought not to. The circuits inside were neatly packaged and not readily accessible, but I had a hammer on my belt. After smashing the covers off the connectors, I prized the wires free.
“Hey, dumbass,” Bob muttered. “We’re getting close.”
One wire was red, while the others were color mapped. I tried to remember which colors were hooked up to the different circuits, and in the dim light picked out the blue wire that triggered the front thrusters. They were designed to maneuver the barge, and we might have a chance if I could use them to slow it down. I wrapped my legs around the framing and crossed the wires over. When they connected, I was pushed back as the rear thrusters ignited, accelerating the barge forward, and I snatched the wires apart again.
“Okay, not blue.” Pinpricks of sweat floated away from my forehead. “How about orange?”
I crossed the second pair of wires and yelled as the forward thrusters kicked in. We were slowing now, though that didn’t mean we were clear—there wasn’t enough time to stop the damn thing. I dug out the connectors for the thrusters situated on the same side as the bots.
“When I shout, give it everything you have, guys. But be ready to stop.”
Looking ahead, I could make out small details on the docking ring. The barge was rolling, making about one revolution every thirty seconds. We needed to synchronize the thrusts so they shifted the trajectory up and over the docking ring. Get it wrong and we’d plummet into the station.
“Now!” I jammed the second wire against the live, simultaneously triggering the Hopper’s thrusters by remote. The acceleration pushed me against the framework as the barge moved upward. Fifteen seconds later, I cut the thrust.
All we could do was wait until the barge completed another roll, but as soon as it was the right way up, I triggered the thrusters again. The barge was rising, and I held the thrust as long as I dared. By the time I stopped, individual panels on the docking ports were visible. We’d have one last shot and that was it.
“Ready, guys?” I held back until we were in the right orientation. “Now.”
The thrusters kicked in. The front of the barge came up and slid past the edge of the ring, scraping off several sensor dishes and communications aerials. I let out a whoop as the docking ring slid under us. We were clear and headed for deep space. I separated the wires and clipped the remote unit back to my belt.
“Let’s head home. I believe we’ve earned ourselves a cold one.”
“Jeez, did anyone ever tell you you’re a drunk, Ballen?”
I laughed at Bob’s assessment. “Many times.”
Then my laugh turned to a groan. Now I’d have to face Dollie.