Chapter 1

“You’re a bastard, Joe Ballen.”

It might have been true in a biological sense as I never knew my parents. It was probably true in a euphemistic sense too, but I listened rather than responding. I’d like to say that was down to me being a patient guy, but the truth was Helios Station was over one A.U. from Earth, and the transmission delay at this distance was over eight minutes, so a direct two-way conversation was impossible.

I also had to admit Dollie had a point. She’d not wanted me to take the Mercury job and we’d fought—ending with me walking out and stepping on the elevator to the High-Rig. I’d been “on the job” for almost ten months and wasn’t planning on going back Earthside before it was finished.

“Do you know how long it’s been? You’re turning me into a frustrated old maid. I swear there are cobwebs forming.” Dollie looked at me with lowered eyes. “A girl deserves to be treated well. You can’t expect me to keep it all wrapped up warm for you for so long.”

Despite the fact that we’d gone through the legal marriage process, I thought it highly unlikely Dollie was “keeping it warm” for me. It wasn’t in her nature. She had at least twice the sexual drive of a regular person, and I often got the feeling she’d have been happy if we stayed in bed 24/7.

“It’s great to see you, Dollie. You look as good as ever.” Even though I knew she wouldn’t hear me for several minutes, the cost of the call was so high I couldn’t say nothing. “I miss you too. A whole lot. The work here is important though—you know that.”

I slipped into my chair, the phone pickup automatically tracking my face. The artificial gravity in the rotating habitation section felt good. As much as I liked free fall, it was surprisingly tiring, especially with the heat inside the station. “Everything is going well here. We finished installing the first four rocket launcher systems last week, and the upgrades to the Mass Driver are underway. The new crew members are doing well for the most part—though a couple need to learn more about personal hygiene in close quarters. Inestria is working on that.”

Isabell Inestria was my second. She knew almost as much about Zero-G construction as I did and also had similar experience in handling construction teams. But as soon as I mentioned her name, I cursed myself silently, anticipating the response I’d get in seventeen minutes. Ever since Dollie discovered Helios was a mixed-sex operation, she’d convinced herself I’d be bedding every single female on board. The fact that Isabell was friendly, outgoing, and robustly attractive, did nothing to assuage Dollie’s mistaken accusations.

“When are you coming home, Joe? Dollie isn’t happy. And when Dollie isn’t happy she gets restless and naughty. You wouldn’t want me to be naughty, now would you? I swear I’m making all the drivers nuts, I’m so wound up. Perhaps I should organize a big orgy to settle my nerves and theirs.”

My throat was dry, and not only from the ever-present traces of bitter dust from the ore processing sections. Working at Dollie’s Cabs had taught me how rough Dollie could be with people at times. Her mixed-up hermaphroditic DNA gave her a sizzling personality that sometimes showed the worst of both worlds: a male-oriented harshness combined with a female spite that could peel your skin if you were unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end.


I looked up and grimaced when I spotted Delacort outside my door. He was the leader of the small MilSec unit stationed with us, and the official monkey on my back. He always dressed perfectly in uniform, completing the look with cropped regulation hair giving his narrow-domed skull a passing resemblance to a kiwifruit. He insisted he was a “regular guy” despite his military rank, but somehow he still managed to make every job we had at least three times harder than necessary.

“Personal call.” I took a sip of my dark coffee. It was hot and bitter, quite appropriate since we were currently in orbit two thousand kilometers above Mercury. Whatever he wanted to bitch about I didn’t want to know. “After that, I have another six solar arrays to bring online. Look me up after I’m done.”

“Well, zip your pants. I’ve received a priority one notification from Central. The Atolls have launched a cruiser and, as near as they can tell, it’s headed our way.” Sweat prickled his face. Even with almost unlimited solar power the cooling systems struggled to fight off the sun’s heat. The units worked well enough, the problem was getting rid of the excess heat—even the best exchangers work only marginally in a vacuum. Not only that, we were almost at closest approach to the sun, and that, combined with radiation from Mercury, made it a losing battle.

“You better keep your hands off that—” I killed the comm channel, cutting Dollie off in a way that would cause me a mountain of grief later. Assuming there’d be a “later.” Even if the defenses worked, we weren’t equipped to fight off a determined attack from an Atoll ship.

“How long?”

“The simulations show arrival probabilities of the enemy from eight hours to seventeen days depending on flight parameters.” Delacort shrugged. “You know how it is.”

Tactical sims have a habit of showing you every possible piece of information, but not the one you need to know. What you get are probabilities and estimates, but it’s basically a shopping list of what-might-be’s—choose your own level of optimism or pessimism. We had relatively poor monitoring capabilities, limiting our knowledge of Atoll force movements, so it was hard to see any benefit from such vague numbers. From what Delacort said, if they came straight for us they’d be here in half a day—any change from the most direct approach would place the time of arrival at any point in the future.

“They’re sure they’re coming for us?” It was wishful thinking, but I had to ask.

“Ninety-three percent confidence rating based on the figures they have.”

“You’d think they’d give us a break. It’s not like we’re treading on their toes.”

Three years ago the Atolls had taken out Deimos Base, a mining relay station in Mars orbit feeding raw materials to both the Atolls and Earth. It was the only operation Earth was involved in outside of planetary orbit and tolerated only because it provided resources to both sides.

But the starship Ananta changed everything, including that miserably slim piece of collaboration. It was a prototype, built by Earth, which the Atolls had scoffed at. When the possibility arose that it might work, the Atolls were ready for blood. They’d clamped down on every deep space endeavor we had. And those restrictions hadn’t been lifted even though the Ananta had been lost for the past three years.

Earth had looked inward. Mercury wasn’t a good bet for ore extraction. Although its orbit made it easy to deliver materials to the inner solar system, the heat and difficulty in achieving a stable orbit made the project much more expensive than the Deimos operation. But the Atolls controlled everything farther out, leaving us little choice.

“Everyone into the Rabbit Hole in seven hours. I’ll pass the word.”

The Rabbit Hole was a bunker deep in the heart of the station. Theoretically, it could hold the crew and protect them for nine days—long enough for a rescue vessel to get here from Earth—but we’d never tried it. It was surrounded by as much mass as possible to “armor” it: packed rock from the extraction process, water tanks, and finally several layers of matted ballistic material. It might survive a sustained attack, but it was probably a fifty-fifty proposition at best. I grabbed my comm-set to contact Isabell; she could handle most of the arrangements.

“How about infrastructure?” Delacort waved his hand in an all-inclusive gesture.

“What about it?”

“The solar arrays, heat sinks, cooling systems. Should we shut them down to protect them?”

I thought of telling him where he could stick his “infrastructure” but didn’t. He was only doing his job the way I tried to do mine, and we’d need all those things if we survived. “Heat sinks are maxed out. We can’t take them offline, not this close to perihelion. We’d fry in a matter of hours. Same with cooling.”

“Right. The bastards timed it to hit us when we’d be most vulnerable.”

“We could furl the arrays. That would make them less prone to damage but would only leave battery power.”

I waited while Delacort thought about it. Running on batteries would mean the railguns and lasers would be useless after a few shots and, unless we got impossibly lucky, there’d be nothing left of us except for a cloud of trace elements drifting slowly inward to fry in the Sun. I knew he’d want to make a stand, his tightly muscled jawline delivered that message clearly.

“We have to be able to fight. Forty-eight rockets aren’t going to save us on their own,” he finally said.

“Forty-eight rockets, four railguns and two lasers doesn’t sound much more effective.”

Delacort lifted his chin. “Do you have an alternative?”

“Sure. Surrender. The Atolls don’t want to kill us, they want to confine us. If we turn ourselves in they’ll either hold us or send us back to Earth. Knowing how much they hate us, I imagine they’ll send us home with our collective tails between our legs.”

Delacort stiffened. “You’re a coward.”

Why is self-preservation always dismissed as cowardice? After surviving what I’d been through a few years earlier, was it any surprise I didn’t feel like offering myself on the altar of destruction once again? “You’re the one with the military background. What chance do we have? We’re on a space station. We can’t avoid their attacks or do any fancy escape orbits. We have limited weapons and a small crew. But they can maneuver freely and outgun us at least ten to one. If we had a fighting chance I’d raise a flag on the ramparts myself, but this is suicide.”

“We might get lucky.”

I nodded slowly. “Has Central dispatched a rescue ship yet?”

“What? No. Why would they? Nothing’s happened. SecOps doesn’t have ships waiting in line to nanny a bunch of nervous engineers.”

The truth was we didn’t have any ships to speak of, but that wasn’t relevant to the point I was making. “They know our situation—we have virtually no chance of winning this fight. Some might survive in the Rabbit Hole, but you know how limited the time frame is. Earth could send a ship now to pick up the pieces, but they haven’t. Why?”

I let him ponder the question and come to his own conclusions. Picking up my comm-set, I signaled Isabell.

“Prepare everyone to head for the Rabbit Hole. There’s an Atoll ship on the way and they’re not looking to get a tan.”

Isabell sounded calm. “How long?”

“Eight hours, maybe.”

“Will do.”

Isabell disconnected, and I looked back at Delacort. He pulled a cloth from his pocket and mopped his forehead. “Central doesn’t expect anyone to be left here. You’re right.”

“I’m glad you saw sense.” I moved towards the hatch. “Let’s get to the radio room and broadcast our surrender.”

“That’s not what I mean. Charge all the batteries and capacitors to full. We’ll need everything we’ve got.”

I groaned. Why couldn’t things go the easy way? Just once.





Delacort hurried off, and I checked the personnel trackers. There were eleven people outside the station performing maintenance tasks, and I saw all but one start to move towards the airlocks. I picked up the comm-set again.

“Isabell. What’s Abdela’s assignment?”

“He’s checking the guide rails on the ore launcher. Why?”

“Tracker shows he’s not heading for an airlock.”

Isabell cursed, then switched to the open frequency. “Abdela? What the hell are you doing? Report back immediately. This isn’t the time to screw around.”

I flipped through the external screens, searching for any signs of him in the glare of the station’s mirrored surface. At our current distance from the Sun, the external surface of the hull was painful to look at without filters. I threw in an enhancement filter to mask some of the brightness, but that made the image grainy, making it difficult to pick out details.


I heard a voice from over my shoulder and turned back to the phone, thinking Dollie had called back, but there was no incoming connection.

“You’re losing it, Ballen. You’ll be talking to yourself next.”

I finally spotted Abdela floating off the primary port-side stanchion. He was doubled up as if in pain, then he waved his arms several times before curling up once more.

“Isabell. Check the number seven external feed.”

There was a pause. “He’s praying.”


“Not sure how, but he decided that point on the station had the clearest view of Mecca. He goes there to pray.”

Abdela had been born in the MusCat Alliance in Egypt but escaped when he was about fourteen. How he managed that, he never said. I’d heard rumors he was homosexual and his family had helped him escape. Other scuttlebutt said he was an atheist SecOps informer, and they’d pulled him out when his cover was blown. I didn’t care one way or another, as long as he completed his work on schedule.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Since forever. I didn’t want to report him, he’s a good worker.”

Isabell’s good nature was liable to get Abdela very dead if he didn’t come inside. The estimated arrival time for the Atoll ship was still hours away, but I had little confidence in the number and it didn’t take into account the earliest the enemy could launch an attack. For all we knew, there could be shots incoming any minute.

Isabell tried again, but there was no response. “He shuts off his radio when he prays,” she said, sounding sheepish at admitting she’d allowed such a basic safety breach.

The majority of the USP were atheists or agnostics. Religion wasn’t banned as such, but viewed with suspicion after the religious uprisings over a century back. The Catholics and Muslims had decided unbelievers were more dangerous to them collectively than they were to each other. So they united, provoking a series of skirmishes and wars as they pushed their combined ideology as widely as possible. The result was predictable with most of the Middle East and Northern Africa forming a loose coalition with much of South America and the southern states of the former U.S.A. Meanwhile, the northern states and Canada had come together for mutual protection, as did many formerly independent eastern countries. It shouldn’t have required as much blood as it took in the end, but that’s humanity for you—they’d rather fight to the death over a pile of crap than work together to escape the heap.

I jammed a comm-set over my ear and set out for the nearest airlock. “Get everyone inside the Rabbit Hole. I’ll get him.”

“I should go.”

I understood how Isabell felt. It was her mistake, so she should be the one responsible for correcting that. I had a more important task for her, though. “We don’t have time to argue. I want you guarding the airlock at the Hole. I don’t want any of those smart guys thinking it would be better to zip it up before we get back.”

“Over my dead body.” She hesitated momentarily. “Make sure you get back.”

“We’re going to come through this with no dead bodies, okay?” I scrabbled down the access tunnel to the ZeeGee hub and squirmed down the corridor to the right. My suit was at the main ‘lock, which was unfortunately a long way from Abdela’s position, but there wasn’t much I could do about that—luckily I move pretty well in low gravity.

Several crew were in the staging room as I entered. The frost on their suits made them look like frozen samurai warriors before they started to shed their armor. The room reeked with a mixture of sweat and oil, and the moisture in the air condensed onto the walls, forming a greasy patina.

“Everyone stay in your P-Suits,” I called out, getting a few muffled grunts in response.

My suit was in its rack and I squirmed around to slide legs-first into it. Once I felt the ankle locks tighten I crunched up, sliding my head and arms inside the tight glove of the upper suit. The “bug” crawled up my back zipping me up, then unhooked me from the tubular cage framework, and I stepped towards the inner ‘lock. One of the men followed me and I looked around.

“You’re going to need an EMU.” The name stenciled on his helmet said “BENZING.” “Can’t do that on your own.”

Giving him a thumbs up, I closed the inner hatch, then thumbed the cycle button, almost immediately feeling my suit stiffen as the pressure dropped. The Extended Maneuvering Unit looked like a pair of robot legs carrying a huge backpack. I stepped backward into it and Benzing strapped my legs to the augmented ones of the unit. As he worked on my legs, I hooked up the waist straps and finally locked my arms into it.

The power-up sequence was short. I flipped the switches to bring the systems online and patched the station’s navigation telemetry through to my suit. Benzing leaned over and touched his helmet to mine.

“Don’t let that crazy Arab die out there, boss. He owes me fifty bucks.” His voice was muffled and distorted through the laminated helmet layers. “And he’s the only real friend I’ve got out here.”

I didn’t imagine Abdela would appreciate being called an Arab, and Benzing had never struck me as a sentimental guy. He was one of the “toughs” who swaggered around the station as if they had a God-given right to be anywhere in space they chose, regardless of what the Atolls had to say about it. I’d have laid money on him not having a friend anywhere in the universe outside the nearest barman. Space does funny things to people, though.

I waited for the outer hatch to open, then unhooked from the station and pushed off outside. Despite my best intentions, the shove was slightly off-center and I started tumbling slowly. The automatic stability dampener kicked in almost immediately, minimizing the chance of motion sickness.

Mercury looked like a ball about the size of my fist, sitting to the left or “port” of the main axis of Helios. It wasn’t the best view I’d ever seen. The planet itself was brown and looked like a Zero-G turd floating in space. Its mineral wealth made it a valuable resource but didn’t improve its appearance one iota. Our orbit was taking us deeper into the planet’s shadow to help ward off the heat as we approached the closest distance to the Sun. That made it difficult to see anything other than the rim of the planet, but I didn’t have time for sightseeing.

I kept the thrust on constant rather than using the more usual “squirt and drift” technique. Speed was more important than saving the power unit, and the propellant was easily replenished filtered wastewater, so it didn’t need conserving. All I wanted was to get there and back as quickly as possible.

A soft warble sounded to warn me the EMU was about to start deceleration, and five seconds later the small forward-facing thrusters triggered, each blast trimming my speed as I approached the solar arrays.

“Ballen. I have a signal. It’s them,” Delacort’s voice crackled over my comm-set.

I swore silently, unable to move any faster unless I wanted to risk becoming an independent solar satellite. “ETA?”

“Less than two hours. Range approximately one million kilometers. They’re set up for a pass rather than a rendezvous.”

Damn those tactical reports. “I’m ten minutes from my guy. Back inside in thirty.”

“No time.” Delacort’s words were muffled briefly. “Kill your pickups.”

The missile carrier at the far end of the station swiveled, the launch doors opening as it turned. In a full spacesuit like mine you “see” using external sensors, with the information broadcast on the inner surface of the visor, suitably enhanced and augmented. This makes the suit stronger and less prone to damage from knocks or small debris, though it takes a little getting used to.

I shut down the pickups not a moment too soon as a flare erupted from the launcher. Even without the external sensors the brightness was so intense it leaked around the edges of the flip-up virtual screen. More flashes followed, and I clenched my eyes against the glare.

“You haven’t a comet in hell’s chance of hitting them,” I called into the comm-set. It was stupid to waste what little weaponry we had at such an extreme range. No doubt the Atoll ship would be dancing around in a “drunken walk,” making intercept trajectory prediction almost impossible, especially with the limits of Helios’ detection equipment.

“I’m not as stupid as you think.” Delacort sounded unconcerned with my criticism. “If we can make them move around more, we can push them closer to their thermal limit. It might make them decide we’re not worth the risk.”

Thermal buildup is the biggest limiting factor in space combat. Every maneuver requires a burn from the engines and produces heat directly from the exhaust, but also within the reactor core powering the drive. It’s the same every time you fire a weapon. And even though the Atolls have the benefit of more advanced fusion reactors than we do, they still produce heat, which is difficult to get rid of in the vacuum of space.

The rockets we had were “frangible”—a fancy way of saying they break apart. This isn’t through accident or shoddy workmanship. At a configurable range, they explode, forming an expanding cloud of debris and kinetic impactors traveling at several kilometers per second. This velocity means every piece has three times the energy of an equal amount of TNT. That would give you a bad day in short order. It’s also a difficult mess to predict, so the people on the receiving end are forced to use their own defensive weapons, maneuver, or both. And that brings us back to thermal buildup. As a bonus, the rockets didn’t contribute to our buildup because their energy was locked in their propellant.

I reactivated my external pickups and the helmet screen flickered back to life. “Good choice. Let’s hope it works.”

“I’m so glad you approve of my tactical decisions,” Delacort said. “Now get your man and make it quick. They have rockets too, and we can’t duck.”

I saw a flash of orange from the high-viz bands on Abdela’s suit and tried the open frequency again. There was still no reply, and I wondered how the hell he could have missed the rocket launch. From a distance I could see him slowly pinwheeling in space, and closer in, I saw his helmet screen was up.

“He’s in trouble. Think the launcher flare got him.” I tried to relay the message calmly, but this was going to make my job a lot harder.


I aimed for Abdela’s center of mass, slowing to a crawl as I closed, otherwise the combined mass of me and the EMU would break him in half. Spreading the “arms” wide, I gathered him up and gripped tightly as I spun back towards the main airlock. I told the EMU to take us back as quickly as possible, overriding the safeties as much as I could to minimize the travel time. The unit would compensate for the unbalanced load, but it reduced the speed at which we could move.

“Incoming!” Delacort yelled.

I wasn’t even halfway back when the laser turrets came to life, wheeling around as they acquired targets I couldn’t even see. The beams were invisible, but I caught flickers out of the corner of my eye almost too faint to see as the incoming shrapnel was vaporized. For a brief moment, it was almost as if the stars were twinkling, the way they appear to us from Earth.

The reverse thrust warning sounded and I prepared for deceleration. Abdela twisted in my arms and I struggled to hang on to him, locking my arms about his waist.

“Eyes. Can’t see.” His voice was hoarse.

“We’ll be inside soon.”

That appeared to satisfy him, and he stayed quiet, even when the thrusters started to kill our forward motion. The airlock was dead ahead and closing fast. Too fast. The overrides had been too ambitious—impact was inevitable, and there was nothing I could do to change it.

I pushed Abdela slightly to one side. It would be crazy to have gone to all that trouble only to crush him with my momentum. The EMU was still braking our progress and he slid away on the short tether I’d hooked to his P-Suit straps. We didn’t look to be going very fast, but appearances were deceptive.

“It looks like we’re in the clear. For now.”

Delacort sounded almost as relieved as I was, but he wasn’t the one approaching the airlock wall too fast. At the last second before impact, I twisted so the EMU hit first. I didn’t need its thirty-five kilograms of mass slamming into my spine.

Bang! My head snapped back and my vision blurred. Abdela gasped over the comm-set. Instinctively, I grabbed the nearest handhold to stop myself from bouncing back out of the ‘lock. Then I punched the “cycle” button and the outer hatch started to close.

“Second round.”

I barely realized the significance of Delacort’s announcement as I focused on the painfully slow movement of the outer-hatch. Finally, the indicator light turned yellow to show the seal was complete; only then did the pressure start to build. My external pickups frosted over immediately, but that didn’t stop me from tearing open the straps tying me to the EMU. Luckily, it was easier getting out than in.

The light turned green. I grabbed Abdela, launched him past the inner hatch, and followed him a second later. Even through my helmet, I could hear the repeated whine as the capacitors charged after each blast from the point defense lasers. I was sweating inside my suit. The station’s cooling system was struggling to combat the heat buildup. How long until thermal shutdown, I wondered.

“On board,” I called over the comm-set.

I wanted to get us both into emergency P-Suits, but it would have been way too difficult and time consuming. We needed to get to the bunker before the next attack—one that might overwhelm our defenses. I stripped out of my bulky suit—at least in my shorts I’d be able to move more easily.

Abdela yelled as I slid his suit down, then gritted his teeth. It looked like his arm was broken, either as a result of me holding him too tightly or from the impact with the airlock bulkhead.

“Can you move?” I asked, pulling the suit over his legs.

I saw his jaw tighten as he tested himself. “My arm…yes, I’ll make it.”

He was a fighter, I had to give him credit for that. Bracing myself against the floor, I pushed him within reach of a handhold.

“Head for the Rabbit Hole. I’ll be right behind you.”

In gravity his injury wouldn’t have been too debilitating, he could have shuffled down the corridors without much difficulty, but in ZeeGee you have to squirm around like a monkey chasing its tail, dragging yourself from handhold to handhold. More than once we had to stop while Abdela caught his breath.

Then I heard the thing that scared me the most: the deadly clatter of debris impacting against the hull.

“Dammit! You there, Delacort?”

No reply.

I cursed again more violently, nudging Abdela forward as we turned into the corridor leading to the Rabbit Hole. “Isabell? We’re ten meters away and closing.”

The hairs prickled on the back of my neck when again there was no reply. As we approached the bunker, I saw the hatch was sealed and locked.

“Isabell? We’re outside. Open the goddamn door.”

Nothing happened. I hammered against the smooth surface of the hatch in a futile gesture. Abdela groaned weakly but held tight to a handhold. I heard several pops, then the high-pitched whistle of escaping atmosphere. Something had breached the hull. The noise came from all around, telling me there were multiple breaches. Not big enough to be immediately fatal, but they needed attention or we’d soon be just so many slabs of meat.

I grabbed a bottle of VacSeal from the wall and floated down the corridor, finding three holes and quickly squirting the self-sealing foam into them. There was still a whistle, but I couldn’t work out where it was coming from. Then the indicator turned green, and the hatch opened.

“I sealed the hatch as a precaution. Sorry, it took a while to cycle.” Isabell grabbed Abdela and guided him through the hatch to join those inside.

“I could kiss you.”

She looked me up and down. “No objections, but your timing is terrible.”

Several people inside grabbed Abdela and pulled him the rest of the way into the Rabbit Hole. They didn’t look happy, and I couldn’t really blame them.

“There’s a breach.” I waved the VacSeal at Isabell. “We need to find it, or the automatic doors will cut us off from the rest of the station.”

She nodded and worked her way inward while I floated the other way. I thought the whistle was getting louder, but then it faded again. I glanced back at Isabell and she waved me towards her, pointing into the mass of wiring and ducts behind the mesh screens.


I reversed direction, pushing back against a bulkhead as the comm-set buzzed loudly in my ear.

“You there, Ballen? Things got a little busy.” It was Delacort.

“What’s the situation?”

“I’m seeing a pressure drop in your area. Something got through the last round.” His speech became muffled, then, “Hard to tell how bad from here.”

Delacort was still in the main control center, monitoring the station as well as the defenses. His men didn’t have the luxury of being able to hold out in the Rabbit Hole like my crew. Their job was to fight, and if necessary, die.

“Already on it. We have several small punctures in the B-Six crosswalk. Almost finished sealing them. Any others?”

“There are similar drops in D-Three and Four. Bigger judging by the rate of pressure drop. There’s also something in C-Twenty-one.”

D-Three was on the way to the cooling plant—de-pressurization in that area could put the whole station at risk. On the other hand, C-Twenty-one was near the reactor, hardly a safer bet, although pressure loss shouldn’t directly affect the reactor.

I filled the hole Isabell had found and shrugged. “Rock or a hard place?”

“I’ll take C-Twenty-one, I know the reactor better.” Her chestnut eyes locked with mine. “Stevens knows the cooling systems.”

That was true, but I couldn’t order a man out on a job like that. “I’ll go.”

“You’re not suited up.”

“I better work fast, then.”

I pushed the VacSeal into her hand, squeezed past her and dived down the corridor. Her P-Suit helmet had been open and her perfume lingered in my nostrils despite the sweat. I tried to put it out of my mind, but it had been a lonely ten months.

“Delacort? Isabell’s dealing with the reactor area. I’m taking care of D-Three. Update in ten.”

I wasn’t entirely suicidal. The route to the cooling section took me back past the main airlock. I grabbed an emergency P-Suit, wriggled inside, and was back on the move inside of two minutes. I also grabbed a couple of large cans of VacSeal along with some aluminum patches in case there were any bigger holes.

The lights in D-Three were flickering when I turned down the corridor. The white thermal-plastic walls were constantly dirty from the ore processing dust but now looked scorched and blackened too. Whatever had penetrated must have hit some of the wiring. I switched on the headlights on the side of my visor. There were several small holes I filled easily with the sealing foam and two larger ones that needed a patch.

I emptied half a can of VacSeal onto the back of a patch and slapped it over the hole, holding it in place while the foam set.

“One down. One to go.”

The second was harder to get to, and I had to reach awkwardly around some conduit. “Thirty seconds. How are you doing, Isabell?”

“Fine. Nothing but small stuff down here. Once I—”

The whole station lurched, then the roof slammed into my head like an asteroid impacting a planet. The emergency lights flickered to life, filling the corridor with a sickening pale green light. Then I blacked out.

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