by Mark Kertzman
|part 1 of 3|
“I fly alone.”
Susannah looked at me over the rim of her glass, her eyes a mixture of interest and desperation. It looked like she wasn’t going to be that easy to get rid of. “So you never take passengers, ever?” she asked.
“That’s right. Never,” I replied.
“It’s easier that way.”
She exhaled loudly, still looking at me. I had to admit she was a sight. Longish black hair, green eyes, full lips. The body under her hip pants and vest looked good, too. Interesting, but not worth breaking my rule over. Also not worth getting in any other sort of trouble over, either.
“How much do you charge for cargo?” she asked, a sly look on her face.
“Depends where I’m carrying it.”
“Alright.” She decided to play along. “Let’s say you were going to take, oh, one hundred kilos out to Titan. What would you charge?”
I didn’t have to do the math; I knew already.
“One hundred a kilo. At one hundred kilos, that’s ten grand.”
“Sounds reasonable to me. I’m your cargo.”
“No,” I declared flatly.
“I’ll double it.”
It was the pause that gave me away. “No,” I replied, but my heart had skipped a beat.
I didn’t answer this time. I just looked at her.
She really looked serious. “Fine. I’ll make it fifty thousand, to take me to Titan.”
I turned away from her shining eyes, glancing around the mine bar. I hardly registered the bare rock walls, the shiny stainless tables and chairs, or the sullen bartender in the far corner. I was thinking, going over all of the reasons why this was a bad idea.
“Deal.” I couldn’t believe I had just said that.
“Great! When do we leave?”
“As soon as I finish loading cargo. Come to the docks the day after tomorrow. My ship is the Sunrider.”
“I’ll be there, Ryan.”
“Fine. Why do you want to go to Titan, anyway? You know, there’s not much out there.” I don’t know why, but I had to ask.
“I have my reasons,” she shot back, her eyes holding a gleam of desperation and something that might have been fear. I decided to leave it at that for now.
“Oh, and don’t forget; fifty thousand. Cash.”
* * *
There are always prospectors investing in too much gear. The bulletin board near the cafeteria gave me what I was looking for; a bunch of corers and seismic gear for sale. I had to pay cash; but it was dirt cheap, and I knew I could unload it really easily on Titan Station. While I was making the pre-trip arrangements, I made sure to lay in enough provisions for the trip, taking into account that I was shopping for two this time. That included air and water and just about used up most of my cash reserves.
The next day, Susannah O’Grady was there, banging on my hatch.
“Good. You’re on time. Got the money?” I greeted her unceremoniously.
“Nice to see you, too. Yes, I have the money.” She was perhaps a little put out that I was so up-front.
“Good. Let’s see it.”
“Here.” She handed it to me, then came into my little ship.
As I counted the worn plastic bills, I could see her peruse the interior.
“It’s not very big,” she said.
“Of course not. Size is mass, and solar ships can’t afford to lug too much mass.”
“Yes, of course.”
I tucked the cash away in a vest pocket and gave her the fifty-cent tour.
“That’s your bunk, on the far side. Galley in back, then the head. You can store your stuff under the bunk.”
“There is also not much privacy.” She moved around the central control column, putting her duffle bags at her bunk.
“Sorry. This isn’t a luxury liner. You will have to make do.”
She gave me a brilliant smile, as though to let me know that it wasn’t personal. “I can make do no matter what.”
“Since we’re talking about the size of the quarters, I know I can trust you, right.” She was asking, but it didn’t come out like a question.
“Of course. You know the Code. Your virtue is safe when you are on my ship.”
“Good,” she said again.
While she made an attempt to settle into the cramped quarters, I sealed the hatch. Making my way to the main controls, I put my headset on, keying it open. I worked as I talked, getting ready for departure.
“Ceres Control, this is Sunrider One One Two, requesting permission to depart,” I said into the headset mike.
“Roger, Sunrider One One Two, Ceres Control. What vector do you require?”
“Ceres Control, Sunrider to depart docking bay Charlie-four, then vector outward to Saturn space, uh, port turn to vector two one zero, declination one eight. Slow delta vee.” I read the last off the navigational plot.
“Roger, Sunrider, you are clear to lift, no traffic in your area, through to your vector.”
“Control, this is Sunrider. Acknowledged. Lifting now.”
The auxiliary controls were at my right hand. I released the docking clamps, then gave the maneuvering jets a little forward thrust. Through the viewports, I saw the docking bay slowly drop back and away, and clear space beckoned ahead.
The maneuvering jets didn’t allow me to get up any real velocity, since they were only for close-in work. I spun the control, turning my little egg-shaped ship out towards the outer Solar System. A little more thrust gave me just enough of a push to feel we were leaving Ceres’ pocked and shadowy surface. The lights of the port slowly shifted backwards.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Susannah craning her neck, studying the few windows set into the surface over the habitation areas. With a smile, I turned back to my work.
It took us a few minutes to drift out far enough to begin deploying the sails. I worked the controls, one at a time. On the outside of the hull, little winches turned, playing out gossamer thin carbon fibre lines. Slowly at first, the reflective Mylar billowed out from a half a dozen storage canisters set around the middle of the ship. As it continued, the sails took on more form, expanding and shimmering.
Behind me, Susannah was watching the silent ballet with a fascinated look on her face.
“You’ve never ridden in a solar sailer, have you?”
“No.” She shook her head, still staring out the viewports. She could see almost the whole way around the ship.
“It’s a very different way to travel,” I told her.
“I can certainly see that.”
The whole process took almost an hour. There was a heck of a lot of sail out there to unfurl. Eventually, the shining sheets were completely deployed. I scanned them out the viewports, making sure there were no problems. The sails formed a giant hexagon of six roughly triangular pieces around my little craft. Glancing at the potentiometer, I was satisfied that they were picking up the sunlight and providing thrust.
“This isn’t a very fast ship,” Susannah said.
“Actually, that’s a misconception. What you probably mean is that it doesn’t accelerate very quickly. That’s true.” I glanced at the potentiometer again. “Right now, we are pulling about point oh-one-five gees. That doesn’t sound like much, but we’re accelerating every second, every minute, every hour. We can get up to a pretty fantastic velocity, if we give it time. And we’ve got lots of time to accelerate towards Saturn space.”
“Oh.” She didn’t sound convinced.
“Don’t worry. We’ve set sail, and Titan is closer than you think.”
* * *
Ceres was far astern, and I was just settling down for a nap when the radio call light flickered. I took up the headset.
“....espond. Sunrider One One Two, this is deep space tug Fortune Two Four Four Seven. Please respond. Sunrider One One Two, this is the ...”
“Fortune Two Four Four Seven, This is Sunrider One One Two, responding,” I cut in. “Do you have some sort of emergency?” It surprised me that anyone was calling, but it does happen.
“Affirmative, Sunrider.” came the reply.
“Roger, Fortune, what is the nature of your emergency?”
I knew I could be of little help out here, but I was compelled to render whatever aid I could. Let’s face it, a solar sailer may have the advantage of high velocity with no fuel costs, but it has the maneuverability of a harvester combine.
“Sunrider, we request you to retract your sails and prepare for docking.”
Suddenly, a cold finger of ice descended to my innards. This was no ordinary emergency call. “Uh, Fortune, say again.”
“Sunrider, drop sails and prepare for docking.”
“What is the nature of the emergency, Fortune?”
Rolling out of my sleeping hammock, I floated to my pilot’s couch. As I was talking to the other ship, I played for time, getting the navigational display on line. Sure enough, there was some sort of tug boosting up from Ceres.
“Sunrider, heave to and prepare for docking maneuver.”
“Negative, Fortune.” I told them. My instincts were telling me that something was very wrong here.
“Sunrider, prepare for docking.”
“Negative, Fortune. What’s the problem?” I asked suddenly out of slight desperation. I didn’t really expect a reply, but I got one.
“Sunrider, the problem is that you are carrying something of great value to me, something I want back.”
Surely this guy didn’t want his seismic charges back!
“Uh, Fortune, this is Sunrider. I bought that prospecting equipment from you, cash down. What is the problem?”
“Sunrider, what are you talking about?”
I was in the pilot’s seat, watching the navcom and idly thinking about my options. I didn’t see many. “Fortune, I’m talking about the prospecting equipment I bought on Ceres, remember?”
“Sunrider, I’m not talking about any prospecting equipment. I’m talking about my wife!”
For a second, I stared down at the blue and green display, but it didn’t make any sense to me. Then my brain understood what my ears had just heard. Slowly, almost as if in a trance, I turned to look aft. Susannah was staring at me with big, green eyes, her breath held.
“Uh, Fortune, stand by.”
Hitting the headset cutoff, I looked hard at Susannah. “Uh, there is a tug out there called the Fortune, asking for you.”
Her eyes got fractionally larger. “Well, tell them I don’t want to talk to them.”
“Because I’ve got nothing to say.” She was clearly scared, even if her persona didn’t let her show it.
“Level with me. Who are they?” I asked.
At first she didn’t want to reply.
“They want to do more than talk,” I added, to shake her up. “They want to come aboard and take you off.”
In a flash she was at my side, her hands clutching my arm imploringly. “No! You can’t let them.”
“Because I hired you to take me to Titan. That implies you’ll keep me safe. You have to.”
“Oh, no, I don’t. This is a matter of the Code.”
I snorted. “What do you mean, ‘why’? Listen, this is big trouble. A man doesn’t mess with another man’s woman.”
“But you’re not involved with me.”
“You and I know that, but your husband doesn’t. That’s trouble for both you and me. Besides, why didn’t you mention that you were married?”
“You never asked.”
“That’s just great. Now you’re getting all technical on me. I should turn you over to your husband and be done with all of this.”
“Please.” She put a lot of emotion in that one word. “You can’t. I won’t go back, anyway. Please help me. I have to get away from him. You don’t know what it’s like. He is not a good man. He’s violent, jealous, controlling. He runs a large prospecting outfit, with lots of men in the ’roids. He can make my life hell if I stay anywhere near Ceres. You have to take me out, all the way out to Titan. Please.”
“That’s fine, but you never said anything about your family problems. You should go back to him.”
“No, I shouldn’t. You said it yourself: we are not involved. This is just a straightforward haulage contract. If that’s the case, then the Code does not apply, and you are free to take me out to Titan.”
I blew out my breath, thinking furiously. Sure, her husband could make trouble for both of us, but she did have a point. Besides, if I kicked her off my ship, the contract wouldn’t be fulfilled and I wouldn’t get my money. Turning back to the display, I saw that the tug was almost upon us. I keyed my mike open, taking a huge chance with the decision I was about to make.
“Uh, Fortune, this is Sunrider. There has been some misunderstanding. I’m going to say it like I see it. I am a freelance pilot, hired by a private citizen to carry one passenger from Ceres to Titan. A simple haulage contract, and nothing more. Got it? Any other problems, you can file a complaint with the Terran Trade Commission through Ceres Control. Permission to dock denied. Good flying.”
“Sunrider, is that your final answer?”
“Affirmative, Fortune. As I said, I’m only carrying passengers and cargo. See you on Titan, maybe. Sunrider out.”
With a slight flourish, I flipped off the mike. The radio light kept blinking, but I studiously ignored it. The nav display still showed the tug coming up on us. By craning my neck, I could see it out the top viewport, winking far away in the pale sunlight.
“So that’s it?” Susannah asked.
“Well, not quite. If he has no regard for law, he can still make trouble for us.”
“Can he board us?” The fearful note in her voice had come back.
“It’s not that easy. In free space like this, he would practically have to ram us, and that might split both our hulls. I doubt he would take the chance.” I looked back at her, studying her face for a moment. “Particularly if he really does not want to lose you.”
“Then we’re clear.”
“Not exactly. He can still spoil our day, if he puts his mind to it.”
“The sails are very vulnerable. Even a decent blast of rocket thrust might split them.” I gestured towards the viewport, at the acres of aluminum-coated plastic composite extending like an almost infinite plain out from the window.
“What happens if he does that?”
“Then we’re dead in the water.”
“Then he has us.”
I shrugged. “He would be taking an awful risk. Attacking a solar sailer in free space could get his flight status pulled permanently and end his prospecting days. He may think this is a matter of the Code, but that would be going too far for almost anyone who lives out here. He would be shunned, and the TTC would make sure that he could not make a living in space.”
For interminable minutes, I watched the navcom, waiting. Susannah breathed into my ear the whole time, perched on the edge of my couch. The tug stayed with us.
“Can they follow us all the way to Titan?”
“In a prospecting tug? No way.”
“So what are they doing?”
“I don’t know.”
Several minutes later, they peeled off and burned back towards Ceres, or at least the Belt. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“We are free,” Susannah said with relish.
I let her think that.
“I know that this may not technically be my business, but I would appreciate an explanation. Why are you running?” I told her
“I don’t really have to explain it to you.”
I sighed, shaking my head. “No, you don’t. Except that it would help me trust you, particularly since you just pulled that little stunt and brought trouble onto my ship.”
“Fine. I want out of this marriage.”
“So you involve me. You know the Code means I may have to fight to defend myself if accused of getting involved with a married woman.”
She shrugged. “That may be, but I don’t agree with the Code. It is not fair.”
“Life isn’t fair. Why not find some other way to deal with this?”
She laughed, but it was a hard, brittle sound. “I tried. There is no other way. The only thing that my husband understands is violence. I have to get away.”
“Now that you mention it, it may come to violence.”
She shrugged, making it a dismissive gesture. “I can take care of myself. I hope you can, too.”
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Kertzman