Dia did her time. She spent years in a cramped ship to get to the ass-end of the solar system and colonize Uranus. If that wasn’t funny, she didn’t know what was.
Now she spends her days cracking jokes about cracks and keeping the floating habitat Aether operational. It might be the ass-end of Diaspora’s colonization plans, but it was home.
When things go seriously wrong, Dia follows her nose for trouble.
Sleep was hard to come by in the ass-end of the solar system. Uranus was the subject of plenty of school yard jokes growing up, and now as an adult stuck inside a narrow shaft, hanging upside down, it wasn’t that funny. She’d had less than four hours of sleep in the last day, but that didn’t stop Dia from cracking jokes. Or making jokes about cracks.
If anything it made it worse.
She hung upside down in the shaft, her bare legs bent over the extension bar she’d run across the shaft. She liked shorts, which showed off her legs, easily her best feature. It certainly wasn’t her boobs. Unlike some of the women that Diaspora sent out to colonize the solar system, she wasn’t stacked enough to benefit from the lower gravity of other worlds. Even back in the deeper gravity well of Earth she hadn’t bothered with a bra most days, so the floating Uranus habitat, Aether suited her fine. Ninety-percent gravity at this altitude, with one bar pressure outside. Almost like home. At least it wasn’t the first time she’d been down a shaft.
Sweat ran down into her short, spiky blue hair and dripped on down on Allison below.
“What do you call a monkey with a red ass?” Dia cracked.
Beneath her, straddling another extension bar, Allison swiped a stained cloth across her forehead. She was also small, and looked more delicate than she was. Sort of like a porcelain doll with short black hair. Also a bit of a card shark and a slut, but she had the whole innocent act down pat.
“Are you sweating on me?”
Dia leered. “Do you want me sweating on you?”
“In your dreams.” Allison grunted, and pushed on the wrench. She was trying to loosen the bolts holding the circulation fan in place without much luck.
They’d already been at this particular repair for an hour, an hour past a double shift, and the temperature was rising across the floating habitat. Allison’s breath hissed and the bolt finally came free. She twisted it off, caught it, and handed it up to Dia.
“So?” Dia took the bolt. “What’s your answer?”
Allison pried at the fan’s housing. “Answer?”
“What do you call a monkey with a red ass?”
“I don’t know, aren’t those baboons or something?”
“No. It’s a spanked monkey.”
Allison groaned. “That’s not even funny.”
More sweat rolled off Dia’s forehead, dripping down onto Allison. The whole shaft smelled of human sweat, salty and sticky.
Dia stuck the bolt into the bag that hung beside her on the bar. Drop one of those puppies and it was a thirty meter climb down the shaft to retrieve it.
Aether, their home on the ice giant Uranus, was a floating habitat similar to Aphrodite on Venus, but far less picturesque and smaller. Aether was an older design, launched years before the Venus mission. It also worked much differently since on Venus a normal breathable atmosphere was a floating gas that kept Aphrodite afloat. On the Aether, they floated in an atmosphere dominated by hydrogen, which mean great heated pontoons on each side to keep the habitat aloft. The fusion generators that powered the Aether, kept it heated against the frigid atmosphere outside, and kept them afloat, couldn’t just be shut down. With the heat-transfer system failing, they were in danger of baking within the habitat.
Allison grunted and jerked at the housing. No good. It wasn’t budging. “I’m going to need a hand with this.”
Dia swung up and grabbed the extension bar. She slipped her legs down off the bar, sliding smoothly to hang her legs down. Her toes found Allison’s extension bar and she gripped it with her feet.
“You’re the monkey,” Allison said. “Where’d you get green nail polish?”
Dia grabbed her bar, pressing the release and twisted. The bar came free from the sides. She gave it a couple extra twists to retract the ends, then turned and crouched smoothly, knees spreading out to keep her balance on Allison’s bar. Her bare feet gripped each side of the bar while she brought her bar down between them, just above Allison’s. A couple twists to extend the ends and it was locked firmly across the shaft, making an X with Allison’s bar.
She sat down on her bar beside Allison, curled her left leg underneath, and braced her bare right foot on the shaft wall beneath the housing.
“I’ll take this side. You get the other.”
Allison slid over on her bar, and grabbed the other side of the housing. “On three.”
They heaved together and with a metallic squeal, the housing slid out into the shaft, the tracks stiff and unresponsive. Dia bent down.
The tracks were bare metal.
“This needs to be greased. It looks like whoever installed it skipped that step.”
Allison was poking around in the innards of the unit. “Nothing wrong with this one except loose wires. Must have vibrated loose. I’ll have it fixed in a twist.”
Dia took out a grease tube from her utility belt and squirted a line of grease onto the stubborn tracks. She used her legs to hold on while she leaned and squirted. She chuckled as she finished.
“There you go, Ali, all lubed up for you. Should slide in real easy now.”
Allison sighed and straightened up. “You’re horrible.”
“What else am I supposed to do? I’m hot, stinky and tired. Sometimes you just have to laugh about it. You know what Lee Barton said to Blackstone before he got the job?”
“I don’t want to know.”
“He said, Terra, darlin’, Uranus fascinates me. I’ve got to be the one to explore it.” Dia laughed.
Allison shoved the fan unit housing back into place. It moved easier now. Dia reached out and caught the edge. “You’ve got to move it back and forth, in, oh, and, out!”
Allison shoved Dia’s hand away and pressed the unit firmly into place. “Leave it! Come on, let’s just get this done. I’m exhausted and I don’t want to cook. Give me the first bolt.”
Dia fished the bolts out of her bag, passing them to Allison as needed. As she handed the last one, she said, “Are you done screwing that unit yet?”
That only got her a glare.
She raised her hands in surrender. “Fine, fine. Try it out.”
Allison brought the unit online. It hummed to life and cool air blew across them. Dia peeled her shirt away from her skin and leaned forward, letting the air blow down her shirt.
“Oh, that’s good.” Dia shifted so the air blew across her left pit. “Everyone can get a whiff of eau de Dia.”
“You’re going to kill them all with that,” Allison said. “Come one. Let’s go check the next one.”
“I’ll go first this time.” Dia braced her bare feet on the sides of the shaft, holding herself in place while she twisted the bar free. She turned, putting her back against the shaft wall and walked down the shaft.
It took two more hours to get all of the units in the shaft back online, but that brought full circulation back on and carried mercifully cooler air through the station. Dead tired, Dia crawled out of the shaft after Allison, then rolled right over in the middle of the corridor and spread out her arms.
“Can’t you just carry me back to my room?”
“I’ll be lucky to get back myself. You can crawl.”
Dia groaned and rolled over onto her hands and knees. She arched her back down, then rocked back, rising up into a downward facing dog position. Slowly, letting each vertebrae rise at a time, she stood up.
Allison reached up. Dia caught her hand and pulled her to her feet.
Allison said. “What are you going to do?”
“Shower, and then grab a bite on the Strip. You?”
“Sleep.” Allison raised a hand. “I’ll see you.”
Dia waved and headed off back to her quarters.
The Strip was the one human place in Aether’s otherwise pristine corridors, and it was the one place where Dia was most comfortable. Particularly at Ricky’s, one of the many entrepreneurial establishments that had sprung up in this otherwise under-utilized space. It was a whole east meets west sort of thing, literally, formed between Aether’s two halves.
Aether was built in modules, assembled in pieces and lowered into the atmosphere for final construction. The orbiting sky hook rotated down through Uranus’ atmosphere, dropping off supplies and picking up hydrogen shipments which it launched out into orbit. That was the whole point to Aether, and the future habitats planned, to serve as mining colonies supplying the fuel to run the fusion generators throughout the system. Mercury’s solar sails would pick up the hydrogen shipments and take them throughout the system.
In the middle of all of that was a space between the two halves of the habitat. In the original plan it wasn’t intended to be sealed, but the enterprising inhabitants had added decking, sealed it off, and created a sort of open air market. If it was actually open to the air they’d all suffocate, of course. Even so, transparent panels were used for the decking down the middle of the strip so you got a good view of the long drop below into the distant cloud decks. If you fell, and were protected from suffocating or freezing, the pressure would eventually pulp you.
It kept things in perspective.
So did Ricky’s spicy noodles, served up today with a few shreds of fresh sprouts. There were other bits of reconstituted vegetables, and even something that might have been meat once upon a time.
Across the way a group of off-duty workers were laughing and hoisting glasses in celebration. Folks having a good time. Other people strolled through the strip, browsing the booths. There was a vibrant trade, particularly in the high-value personal goods that people had brought out from Earth with their weight allowance. Everything kept cycling around and around. Nothing was thrown out. It was repaired, reused or recycled into something new. When you lived in the atmosphere of an icy gas giant, the value of anything solid increased.
Dia twirled her fork, wrapping it up in a great ball of noodles and took a big bite. The broth and noodles slid down nicely. Her muscles ached a bit from the climbing and repair work, but a good ache, the sort that you got after a great workout or great sex. Actually, in her experience, great sex was usually a great workout. It’d been a while. The last guy that she’d hooked up with was one of the rock jocks that worked out on the Uranus moons, mining hard mineral resources and ice for the colony, down for shore leave. Rock jocks were always horny on leave, everyone knew that, and expected it.
Old man Barton, the boss of ’em all out here on the ass-end of the Diaspora, encouraged women to get pregnant. Build up the population and all that rah-rah bullshit. As far as Dia knew, only two woman in the colony had gotten pregnant so far. Most of them were a bit too busy doing science stuff or — like her — trying to keep the colony even functioning to even think about having a kid right now. You had to wonder if Barton would dare tell someone like Terra Blackstone or Carys Rex that they should have kids to boost Diaspora’s population.
Not in this lifetime.
The beer was cold at least. Dia’s glass mug was sweating on the table. She picked it up and took a deep drink. It wasn’t actually bad. Ricky brewed it herself, purportedly from an age-old family recipe. Barton might be the boss of the colony, but it was Ricky that got them organized to build the Strip and launched the first free market in Diaspora. Fundamental rights were a given, part of the Diaspora charter and all that stuff about the most valuable resource being the people themselves. You couldn’t deny them basic rights, including food, shelter, water, air and medical. Along with it was the right to self-governance.
Thanks to Ricky, they actually had the Strip. Better than anything that Barton had done.
Today it was busy. Not just Ricky’s, but the other establishments.
People liked getting out after being on shift. She wasn’t alone in pulling doubles, even triples. Lately it seemed like they were lucky enough to keep the place aloft, and on top of that they had the new folks from the exodus swelling their numbers and straining resources.
There was a group of them at a table on the other side of the Strip at the burger joint. No beef in those rat burgers. You could tell these were newbies. Four guys tucked in close to the table, wearing the generic Diaspora workalls. Back on Earth they might have been important, here they took up space. At least until Barton managed to get them shifted out. Right now they were all holed up in the dormitories which were nothing but new inflated extensions hanging off the Aether until more substantial extensions were built. Some of the exodus folks were busy working on those themselves, if they had any skills in that area.
The guys weren’t bad to look at, if a bit gaunt. It must have been something to see all those launches when the Diaspora group started the exodus to evacuate all personnel and their families from the Earth. She’d seen holograms but that still wasn’t real. Not like being there.
And none of those guys had taken the long haul out for years to reach Uranus. If they thought conditions were cramped now, they should have been on the transport ships that brought the colony out here. She still woke up in a sweat sometimes, thinking she was back on the ships.
Instead the exodus had benefited from solar sails and beamed power to cut down on the transit time to only six months.
They didn’t have to serve time. That’s the way everyone thought of it. The trip out to Uranus, that was serving time. Coffin time. You didn’t have a cell. You had a bunk, a narrow little space with a folding door. If you were short you fit, but anyone over six-feet tall couldn’t stretch out to their full length in the bunk.
Worse than anything, there wasn’t that much to do. Keep the ship running, doing routine maintenance. With a hundred and fifty people though, there wasn’t enough tasks to keep everyone busy. Instead it was all education and study. Scenarios and theories, and constant revisions to the colonization plan. That gave the decision makers something to do and left the rest of them sucking vacuum. That and wondering if they could really make a go of it at Uranus.
Dia twirled her fork in the remaining noodles and slurped them up. Cooling now, but still salty and delicious. Ricky’s had the best food on the Strip.
Those exodus guys didn’t know what the rest of them went through to get here and build this place. Some people went crazy before they even reached Uranus. Twenty-three dead since leaving Earth. She’d seen people fall screaming into deep blue void on the other side of that transparent floor. The floor really spooked the newcomers but it was perfect. It reminded them all of what they’d overcome to build this home.
Her glasses chimed. Dia looked up. Allison calling. “Answer.”
Allison, her cabin walls behind her, covered in climbing tomatoes. She traded them. “We’ve got a valve leak in the west pontoon.”
Impossible. “What the hell?”
Allison shrugged. “All I know, is it went offline.”
“Once again Uranus shits in our faces and we’re supposed to take it? Can’t they get someone else? We already did a double. I got clean.”
“Everyone else is busy. Zeke says we’ll get a full two days off after this is fixed.”
“He’s full of shit,” Dia said automatically. How the man ever was put in charge of anything escaped her, but he was Barton’s second up on the Command deck. “He can’t promise that if things keep breaking.”
“Are you coming?”
Dia picked up her bowl. “I’ll be right there.”
With a bleep, Allison was gone. Dia gulped down the broth, not wanting a drop to go to waste, and returned the bowl to the bus-bot on her way down the strip.
She passed the newbies table on her way out and made eye contact with the cutest guy, with deep dark brown skin and dark eyes. She winked, and threw a bit more sway into her hip on her way out. They’d be watching her legs the whole time.
The pontoons were massive clusters of reinforced inflated balloons, like a fist full of fat cigars, or giant zeppelins, all strapped together on the sides of the Aether. It’d take massive failure to take out an entire pontoon. A simple valve leak on its own wouldn’t mean a failure of the whole thing. At worst, they’d shut down one, do the repair and the bring it back online. The whole thing was so big, that no one would even notice.
Dia was halfway there, taking her time, walking the plain Aether corridors with her tool belt clinking around her waist. Most of the people she passed were serious planetary science types, with clean workalls who probably hadn’t had to pull a double yet. There was a whole team of them studying Uranus.
She snickered. A team studying Uranus. She’d share that with Allison.
The floor tilted beneath her feet. She had fast reflexes and kept her feet. Ahead of her, some three meters down the corridor, a scientist stumbled into the wall. A tablet fell from her fingers and she screamed. Seeing her blond hair, and fine features, Dia recognized her. Missy Turner, who’d once freaked out during the journey out here. She’d got completely catatonic for a whole month after staring out at space too long.
Then the whole corridor moved in an odd slip-sliding sort of way and rose back up slightly, not level, but closer. Missy screamed again.
Something was seriously, seriously fucked up. The Aether did not move like that. It did not! The whole thing was like a floating island. It drifted with the wind, endlessly circling the planet and unless you watched carefully you couldn’t even tell that it was moving.
The floor stayed at an angle. That suggested something had gone seriously wrong with the west pontoon stack. The stabilizers worked to keep things level. The only way it wouldn’t be level was if they couldn’t compensate. Except that was impossible!
Dia ran down the corridor. Missy made a grab for her, but Dia slipped past the grasping hand.
No fucking way. A siren started blaring through the halls.
It wasn’t possible!
She ran faster.
A crowd had already formed in the pontoon access lockers when Dia skidded into the room. People were suiting up around the room. Allison was standing near the airlock, already dressed in the baggy sealed flight suit used for outside work. They didn’t need pressurized suits, just something to keep warm and a helmet so that they had breathable air. Allison’s helmet was tucked under her arm.
Dia sprinted across the room, dodged around a couple guys getting dressed, and caught Allison’s arm as she turned to the airlock.
“Pontoon locks are failing.” Allison’s eyes were wide, dry and scared. “Gotta go, Dia.”
It was Caleb and Kathryn waiting with Allison. The two of them were fitting their helmets. Dia let go of Allison’s arm.
“I’ll get suited up.”
“Good. We’re going to need everyone.”
Dia backed away. Caleb picked up a bulky repair pack. Kathryn was lifting the wielding gear. Allison slid her helmet on.
Dia lifted her hand in a quick wave. Allison nodded back.
Then Dia walked up the sloping floor to the suit lockers. She dialed a small suit. Inside the racks spun, then stopped. She wrenched the stiff door open and took out the suit, the tanks and helmet.
Others were finishing getting dressed. A line was forming at the airlock. A failure in the pontoon locks meant they could lose the whole stack. If the locks failed completely, then the pontoons on this side would escape. It shouldn’t happen. There were multiple redundancies and safety features to prevent that sort of catastrophic failure!
There was no way this could happen.
Not unless someone did something to the locks. That’d be suicidal. If the pontoon failed completely, one pontoon wouldn’t be enough to keep the Aether aloft. The whole base would plummet into the depths and be crushed. The teams going out there now would manually seal and check each one of the locks. But was anyone checking the other pontoon?
Dia zipped up her suit and blinked open a communications line. “Command.”
It was Zeke that answered, his young angular face pale today. “Yes?”
“Zeke, is anyone taking a look at east pontoon?”
“No! The problem is at the west pontoon! Clear the channel and get over there. We need everyone out on this.”
“I’m there, but Zeke, this can’t be an accident. Someone did this.”
He scowled. “No one would —”
“It didn’t fail on its own! And if someone sabotaged this one, how do we know that they’re not over doing the other right now?”
He bit his lip.
“Look, I’ll go check it out. You’ve got enough hands out there already as it is. Send someone to back me up, though. We need to catch the person responsible!”
“Go. Call in if you find anything.”
He was gone already. Dia slipped on her helmet and twisted it in place. Better than carrying it. She grabbed a spare kit, slung it over her shoulder and started running again.
Fastest way over was down to the next cross connection, through the Strip and into Aether’s east side.
When Dia burst into the east pontoon locker room she expected to find it empty. Instead there was a man, by the broad shoulders, standing in front of the airlock. He was wearing a brown excursion suit, no different than hers except in size.
He spun around when she came in.
She’d seen his face before, but she didn’t know his name. He was tanned by the distant sun. From Earth, then, one of the new people that arrived in the exodus transport. Dark hazel eyes watched her warily. Behind him the panel showed the progress in the airlock cycle. Had someone already gone out? If so, why wait inside? The airlock was big enough for at least four at a time.
“What are you doing?” She asked, easing closer.
“Isn’t this where the emergency is? I thought I could help out. I worked on the floating ocean platforms back on Earth.”
“Wrong side. It’s the west side that is in trouble.”
He smiled, flat and as empty as a clown. “Really? Gosh, I’m still getting turned around here.”
Dia kept moving closer. He was right in front of the airlock. If he got inside, she’d have to wait an entire cycle to get out after him. Who know what damage he could cause before then? And what if he had a way to block her from getting out at all. She’d have to go down to the secondary access airlocks and go along the Aether’s spine. That’d take forever.
“Come on then.” She beckoned. “I’ll show you where to go.”
“If this is the wrong way, why’re you here? Why’d you come acrost to this side?”
She smiled widely. “Maybe I got lost too. Come on, let’s get back before anyone realizes that we screwed up.”
The airlock pinged behind him. He glanced back, then at her. His smile still didn’t reach his eyes. “I think I’d better go ahead and check this one out too, don’t you think? Make sure everything is okay.”
“Hey, you know what they say about Uranus?”
His brow wrinkled. “What?”
“You’re so full of shit!”
Dia charged across the room at the guy. Where the hell was her backup? Zeke!
The guy turned away, slapping the airlock control. The door slid open and he lunged through, turning to the panel on the inside. Dia was still a couple meters away.
She sprinted as fast as she could. The door started moving. She dove forward.
Her helmet struck him. He made a wheezing sort of noise before crumpling. They tumbled together into the airlock. The door was still closing. Dia tucked her feet in and rolled off the guy.
Really, she’d meant to tackle him, not head-butt his balls. The helmet got in the way. But that worked too.
The door closed.
The guy was down, on the floor, cupping his wounded pride and groaning.
Dia moved around him back to the door controls. Get the door open. Drag out the guy and sit on him if she had to, until help came. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was best she had. And call —
A hand grabbed her ankle and yanked.
Dia yelped and rolled away as she fell. She hit on her shoulder, still rolling and twisted free from his grip. The guy’s hands grabbed at her again.
Dia kicked out at him. The blows didn’t land. He crawled forward, knocking her ineffectual kicks aside, and then threw himself across her legs.
He was heavy!
She pushed up and swung at him. The blows hit his helmet and bounced off. He grabbed for her arms. She yelled and squirmed, trying to get out from under him, but he grabbed her suit and yanked her beneath him, using his weight and size against her.
He had her down, pinned to the floor, with his weight holding her down. She tried bringing her knee up between his legs but he was ready for that and shifted, deflecting the blow with his thighs.
Then his knee shoved between her legs!
He got both of his legs between hers even as she thrashed against him. He caught her left arm and used his weight to pin it down.
She tried to hit him, but couldn’t get a good angle. She struck at his side and he tucked his arm down, blocking the blow.
Then he punched down hard, right into her side.
Pain exploded in her mid-section as her breath exploded from her shocked and open mouth. Spit sprayed across the inside of her helmet. While she was stunned from the pain, he caught her other arm and pinned her completely down. While fire burned in her side and she struggled for breath, he had her completely pinned between his body and his hands on her arms.
Dia swung her legs up, wrapping them around his waist and squeezed with everything she had. Her legs were strong. She could climb shafts, hang upside down and run with the best of them. Her legs were always her best feature.
She squeezed with everything she had, trying to crush him with her legs.
He grimaced. “Stop.”
“No.” Gasped for air. “Fucking. Way.”
Her muscles trembled against him.
He snarled and rocked back, up on his knees, pulling her up so suddenly she was straddling him. He released her arms and grabbed the front of the suit.
He slammed her back down hard against the floor. Her head snapped against the helmet. The force of the blow knocked out the rest of her air. It was stunning. She was lifted up again, limbs going weak, then slammed down again.
He pulled free and stood.
Dia groaned and tried to move.
A foot flashed, slammed into her side. Something cracked. Her rib. It was on fire. Her eyes stung with tears. She couldn’t breathe or see anything. Her head swam dizzily.
Where was the backup, Zeke?
Was he in on it? Maybe no one was coming. Zeke might have deliberately sent everyone to the other pontoon, to distract them from what was happening at this one. Why?
Another kick hit her stomach, lifting her from the floor and then dropping her. Her stomach heaved and then she vomited into her helmet, the bile hot and tasting of Ricky’s noodles. Not better the second time!
She curled into a ball. She fought for air. Where was he? What was he doing?
She sensed he had moved away, but she couldn’t see. Her eyes were blurry and dark. Her mouth tasted of bile, noodles and fire. She couldn’t breathe!
Panic spread like wildfire along her nerves. She thrashed and struggled to breath, her mouth gaping wide. The darkness grew.
Then a thin hint of air made it down her gasping throat like a thread of fire. She sucked and more came. She took in great gasping gulps of vomit-tainted air and it was the sweetest thing ever. The darkness pulled back a bit, but there was a still a thin keening sound. Was that her?
No. She was crying, but that wasn’t it.
It was the outside door.
Dia arched her back, rolling to get a look.
The outside door was open. The man was gone.
He must have gone out to complete whatever sabotage he had intended. If that was destroying the pontoon locks, he was about to kill them all. Everyone on the Aether, plus the hydrogen miners and the rock jocks. Without the Aether they were all dead. Diaspora would eventually send out a new colony, fat lot of good it would do any of them. Even those in orbit, they couldn’t survive long enough on their own.
Dia got her breath back and opened a call on her glasses. “Command!”
Old man Barton answered the call himself. His face was knows as well as Terra Blackstone’s back on Earth. The handsome astronaut that had been an early proponent of the Diaspora Group back when they were first contracting for commercial space exploration. The years had aged him, turned his hair silver, but otherwise he was still the hard rocket jock he’d always been.
Right now his blue eyes looked haunted. They widened when he saw her. “Dia Rhodes? Where are you?”
“I’m at the east pontoon airlock, sir. One of the newbies got past me, he’s outside. I’m going after him, but I need backup.”
“I’ll send someone right away.”
“Sir, I called in and talked to Zeke already.”
Barton ran a hand across his buzzed silver hair. “He’s gone. We’re tracking him now, but what we’re seeing suggests that he’s involved. Be careful if you see him.”
“Understood. I’ve got to go.”
Dia crossed to the airlock. She hurt from the fight. The sour smell of vomit filled her helmet, and streaked the inside. One of her ribs burned with pain every time she drew a breath. Her lungs were sore.
The airlock opened out onto the long drop through Uranus’ cloud deck, except for the wire grating walkway that extended out from the airlock in a half-circle waiting area with a tall fence around the edges. The wind keened through the wire mesh. Dia slipped out, keeping her back to the walls, watching for the man.
He wasn’t in view. On her left the walkway extended along the Aether’s structure, then turned left and climbed up to the pontoon connections. It was the only way for him to have gone.
Dia ran for the stairs. She got there and looked around the corner. The stairs ran up to the next level, the first connection points. Above her the pontoon stack was enormous, massive long cigar-shaped and silver, bound together in a cluster. Massive cables ran from the pontoon stack to the locks that held it in place. Stairs, wrapped in a mesh fence to prevent falls, ran along the cables up to the pontoons.
The saboteur was climbing up to the first cable locks. He had a bag and was reaching inside. Dia ran up the stairs, ignoring the pain with each step. The man looked down at her, his face registering surprise.
Thought I was down for the count? She thought.
Hardly. Like she was going to let that stop her. He turned away and hurried to the first cable lock housing. There was something in his hand from the bag he carried, small and black, a device of some sort. Explosive?
Dia was still a level down when he slapped the device onto the lock housing. He sprinted down the gangway toward the next housing.
How long did she have? She was already moving. There wasn’t any chance of going back. Fail to stop him, and they died. If she died trying that was better than cowering in the airlock waiting for the Aether to drop into the void.
She climbed up the last steps and ran to the housing. The device was a round, matte-black cylinder, capped at each end with a cluster of electronics on the end. If it was counting down, there wasn’t any visible display.
“What’s going on Dia?” Barton asked.
Her eyes flicked up, acknowledging the connection.
“He’s planted an explosive on the lock housing. He’s going on to the next one. I’m going to try and take it off.”
Barton licked his lips. “If you set it off…”
“If I don’t, he’s going to blow it anyway.”
Sweat dripped into her eyes. “I have to take the chance. Leave me alone so I can concentrate.”
“Send me what you’re seeing, we might be able to help.”
Dia eyes-flicked her feed over to him, then focused on the device.
She didn’t know anything about disarming bombs. The bomb might go off no matter what she did. The housing, though, she understood that. If she removed the housing would the bomb go off? Maybe, but it seemed the best bet. Of course if she got it off she still needed to do something with it.
Dia pulled her cutting torch from her utility belt. The thin torch sucked in hydrogen from the environment, combined it with oxygen to produce a small sort flame. Useful when working outside. She turned it on the fencing next to her. The thin wire cut like butter. She sliced across it, down one side, then over. She pulled the fencing in and bent it out of the way, leaving herself with a half-meter, roughly square opening in the fence.
“What are you doing?” Barton asked.
“The only thing I can do,” she said. “Where’s the backup?”
“On their way. We ran into some other problems.”
The housing was next. She sliced through the access lock. The housing was thin and cut like tissue paper. She swung the door open, biting her lip, and the bomb didn’t go off. She sliced the torch down the hinges and the housing door came away in her hand. It almost slipped in her gloves, but she caught it.
She wasn’t breathing when she shoved it through the opening she’d cut and let it fall.
It tumbled away like a falling leaf, spinning and dropping quickly to a small dark spot against the cloud scape. Then a bright flash far below and a distant rumble like thunder.
She turned and ran for the next housing. The man was already ahead of her, planting more bombs on the remaining locks’ housings. She couldn’t get to them all, not before he could set them off. He only had three left.
At the next housing she didn’t stop. She sprinted past it and aimed for the third. If that one blew, at least there’d be space between the remaining ones.
Twelve locks. How many did the Aether need to before the others failed. If she saved every other one, was that enough?
No time to question. The decision was made. She reached the third. Her lungs were burning as she cut through the fencing and bent it out of the way. Then she turned to the housing, slicing through the lock and then the hinges, just like last time.
She shoved it through the hole and didn’t watch. She turned to run to the next. When a loud blast picked her up and dashed her against the fence. Flames licked the air around her as she dropped to the grating.
The noise had deafened her. Barton’s face was in the corner of her glasses. His mouth moved. She didn’t hear anything expect ringing. She picked herself up. Her suit was singed but the lock was intact. The bomb must have gone off sooner.
Dia picked herself up, pulling herself up the fence. The saboteur was picking himself up too. That had had been some jolt. He was picking up his bag.
She picked herself up and charged down the gangway. Her ribs hurt but her fingers ached as she held onto the torch. Three bombs weren’t even planted. She’d saved at two locks. If she stopped him, that’d give her at least three more. Maybe the others wouldn’t go off.
If he got to the end, if he set them off, then it really was over. The explosion would tear away the cable locks and those thick cables would run free, releasing the pontoons to float away. The Aether would drop into the depths.
Unless she stopped it. The vomit-scented air burned down her sore throat. Her ribs screamed with each step. Dia kept going. The newbie saw her and ran toward the next housing. She picked up speed and ran full out. She didn’t hold anything back.
He was at the next housing when she was only a couple meters behind him. His hand dug into the bag. She didn’t hesitate, didn’t slow, and didn’t stop. She slammed into his side, tucking to drive her shoulder into his side. The impact made her rib flare up like a nova but she kept her feet and he went down. The bag fell away. Another bomb rolled from the bag onto the gangway.
He kicked out at her legs. She jumped, lifting her feet and came down on the other side. As she landed she swung the torch across the front of his suit.
The hot flames scorched through the suit, laying it open to red smoking ruin. Frost formed across the wound as the blood and hot air inside was exposed to the cold. He screamed and thrashed away from her on the metal gangway.
Dia raked the torch across the backs of his legs. The flame burned the fabric down into his legs. Blood well from the blackened wounds and dripped down, drops freezing and falling away through the gangway into the depths below. He screamed again.
Her gut tightened, heaved and she swallowed against it. He was trying to kill them all.
He reached out, clawing the metal for toward the fallen bomb.
Dia brought the torch down on his fingers, cutting the ends of his pinky and ring fingers away. The metal glowed red hot. Frost formed across his stumps. The cold was flash freezing any exposed flesh.
“We need to talk to him, Dia!” Barton. Shouting in her ear.
“Why did you do this?” She shouted at the saboteur.
He struck out at her and she met the blow with the flame of the torch. He screamed, whimpered and tried crawling away. She pounced, searing the backs of his legs again. His suit was a bloody ruin, frozen to his legs. As long as his helmet stayed intact he would keep breathing but he’d freeze soon if he didn’t get inside. The atmospheric pressure at this altitude was essentially the same as sea-level on Earth, just not breathable. And deadly cold. A few seconds in this cold and you’d freeze solid without the suit.
He collapsed sobbing on the deck. His good hand moved down to his waist. Dia stabbed the torch down, searing his hand. He bucked and rolled. There was a device on his belt. She snatched it up, holding the torch ready. The device looked like a trigger, with a guard over the button. She held it and held the torch on him.
“Who sent you? Why are you doing this?”
“We shouldn’t be out here!” He said, rolling onto his back. He held his hands up, panting. “We shouldn’t be here!”
“Why the hell not?”
“We’re not ready.” His voice caught. He coughed. “You’re traitors, abandoning Earth! You deserve to die for that.”
Of all the stupid crap! “Seriously? That’s your reason for sacrificing your own life? You’re one of those origin freaks?”
Origin, preached that Earth was the only proper home for humanity, and they shouldn’t be “invading” other worlds. According to Origin, humanity was supposed to stay on the Earth until the aliens decided they were ready to ascend. Or some crazy shit like that.
“Earth is the birthplace of humanity, and the only place we can survive.”
Dia lowered the torch closer to his helmet. He whimpered and crawled backward. “We’ve been surviving just fine before you decided to try to kill us all. If your whole origin fairytale was true, where are your alien judges now?”
“You’ll doom us all!”
He lunged forward, knocking her back. She stumbled, held onto the torch but he wasn’t coming at her. He managed to get up and took off in a lurching run. It took a few strides before she realized where he was going.
The gate out to the stairs leading up to the pontoons. She ran to catch him, but he got through. He slammed the gate shut with a clang and sat down on the steps. He braced his feet against the frame.
Dia hit the gate. He had his legs locked. She lifted the torch. “I can cut that right off its hinges and drag you out. If you don’t want to talk to me, I’m sure old man Barton will find someone to get the answers out of you.”
The newbie looked back at her. Sweat was running down his face. He gulped air. Then he reached up to the helmet releases on his suit.
“No!” Dia turned the torch on the wire of the gate. It flared bright red and melted, dripping down. She pulled it down the gate, cutting the wire strands.
Not fast enough. He twisted the helmet releases free and pulled it clean off his head. His breath exhaled around him in an instant frosty cloud, forming ice on his hair and skin. His face hardened and ice traced across his cheeks. His feet kicked against the gate and then he was still, slumping forward.
Dia stepped back. Two more steps and bumped into the fence behind her. She stopped and sank down to sit. She thumbed off the torch and dropped it on the gangway. Far, far below the clouds were an unbroken haze.
“Dia? We’re almost there. It’s okay. We’ll take care of the rest. Come on in.”
Barton. His face in the corner of her eye. She blinked him off. She was done.
The body was sitting right there on the other side of the gate, as dead as if she had killed him. And she had wanted to kill him. Her rib burned, but it wasn’t the beating. The idea, that he was willing to kill them all? Over some delusional belief in ancient aliens that had supposedly visited Earth? He must have infiltrated Diaspora a long time ago, before the exodus. Before they’d even found the star map on Titan. The Origin movement had grown when Diaspora spread out into the solar system, but it hadn’t been that big of a deal until lately. This guy must have been biding his time until now.
All for the delusion that he was saving the Earth? That by destroying them, the aliens might spare the Earth? Crazy. Crazy-ass motherfucker!
Tears stung her cheeks. She put her hands up to cover her face and hit her helmet instead.
The Old Man’s office perched on the upper deck of Aether. It was a big round room covered in a dome. An upper deck circled the office, with two stairs that spiraled up on each side of the room so that someone could climb up and walk around the dome and look out at the wide back of the Aether. And there were stars visible up above the dome. The clouds were mostly far below where the Aether floated. To either side the silvery pontoons floated like gigantic schools of metallic whales, shepherding the colony through Uranus’ atmosphere.
It wasn’t a room that Dia normally found herself in, but she was there, answering Barton’s summons. The tape on her ribs reduced the pain to a dull, drugged ache. Her shorts and loose t-shirt lacked any formality, despite the bare limbs she still was distanced from everything around her like she was wearing the suit.
Barton rose from behind her desk like a bear rising from a stream. He stood tall, solid, with a wildness behind him. His age and lines on his face held a gentleness, and seeing him, a sigh escaped from her lips.
“Dia.” He came around the desk and he didn’t touch her. His hands hung relaxed and comfortable at his side. “How are you doing?”
“Okay. I’m okay.”
“You saved us. If you hadn’t stopped Gerard —”
“Kyle Gerard, the bomber.”
Barton nodded. “Your feed caught it all. We’ve been scouring his communications. He was discreet, but there were letters from his sister back on Earth that slipped past us. Coded communications, with directions. Given his background, we put him to work on the cargo pods, which gave him access to the resources necessary to create the bombs.”
“What happened on the west pontoon?”
“He hacked controls there to create an imbalance in the cable tension. At the same time the vent controls were put off line. It made it look like the pontoon was deflating.”
“Yes. One that you saw through.” Barton shook his head. “We’ve been lax as far as security goes. Those of us that served time on the trip out, we thought we knew everything there was to know about each other.”
“That was on the ships,” she said. She moved away from him. Pissed. She didn’t want to look at him right now. “People get out, they start living their lives again. People are getting in fights, falling in love. Making money. Isn’t that the point? Aren’t we building a new world here?”
“Yes. That’s what I called you about.”
Dia turned around. “Me?”
“The colony council decided today that we need a police presence. A sheriff. They want that to be you.”
“Your instincts got you there. You know the colony better than anyone. People like you, they trust you. Heck, right now you could probably have my job if you wanted it.”
That was a scary thought! She shook her head. “I don’t want your job.”
He chuckled. “Glad to hear it. But will you take the sheriff job? We’ll have to give you something less lethal than a cutting torch, but we need someone to do the job.”
“Are you going to set up a whole legal system? Courts and all of that?”
“As we need to, we will.” Barton crossed his arms. “Really, right now we need someone to keep the peace. And it’s not over, not yet.”
A cold chill ran down her arms, like somewhere a heating vent had failed. “What?”
“Zeke. He’s missing.”
Barton nodded. “He left his station after you talked to him. We’ve got the crew confirming that, but he’s been in hiding since. Before he split, he disabled cameras around the command deck so we didn’t see what direction he went. We haven’t been able to track him since. I suspect he’s holed up somewhere.”
“Why? What good does it do to hide? He can’t stay hidden forever. The colony isn’t that big. There’s not many places that he can go to stay hidden. And then what? If he’s hiding, he’s planning to do something. Maybe he’s going to finish what Gerard started.”
The thing that didn’t make sense was that Zeke was one of them, he’d served time on the ships. He’d been a constant morale-booster. He was the one that led them in the ship-wide songs.
“The thing I can’t understand is why he’d betray us,” Barton said, echoing her thoughts. “After everything that we’ve been through together, it just doesn’t sound like him.”
“Maybe he hasn’t betrayed us.” Dia felt her gut rise like she was dropping, falling. “With everyone busy, maybe he came after me to back me up and something else happened to him.”
“I’d like to believe that, but what about the cameras?”
“Let’s look into that. What if he wasn’t the one that disabled the cameras? Someone else might have done that when he was leaving to cover his tracks.”
“I’ll have someone check it.”
Dia shook her head. “No. Who would you ask? If someone betrayed us, did something to Zeke, they must have been on the Command deck when he talked to me. It had to be someone close enough to hear the conversation —”
“That’d be most anyone there. I heard bits of it and I was focused on the other pontoon.”
“So someone that heard I was going to the east pontoon, that wanted to stop Zeke from helping me. It’d be better if we did the work ourselves, without tipping anyone off as to what we’re doing. Can you access the logs from here?”
Barton was already moving toward his desk. “Yes, of course. I know these systems.”
He stepped behind the curved desk and placed his fingers under the edge, drawing it up to a standing height. He made a scooping gesture and a holographic screen rose up from the back side of the desk.
It was a nice workstation, lots of space to work with. “Toss me the personnel roster, anyone working at that time.”
It took Barton a moment and then he slid a window across the screen to her. Dia caught it and dragged it wider and taller. A gallery of familiar faces looked back out at her, animated and lively, smiling when their official portraits were taken. All those little pairs of eyes watching her was eerie. Zeke’s portrait gazed out at her, that hint of a familiar smile on his angular face. His eyes softened the hard lines of his cheeks and jaw. A strand of dark hair fell loose across his forehead. He didn’t look as pale as the last time she saw him. When the picture was taken they hadn’t even left Earth’s orbit yet. She remembered him talking about his last vacation. They all had a story, the last place on Earth they’d visited before launch. For most of them, they knew the trip was going to be one way.
Zeke had taken a bicycle trip, riding down the continental divide across North America. Not the whole way, there hadn’t been time, but he spent a week riding through areas that were still remote and undeveloped. Beautiful, mountainous areas full of wildlife. That’s what he had done before coming out to Uranus. It didn’t sound like the sort of person that would have betrayed them.
Which left the rest of the people on the Command deck, some twenty or so personnel.
“Was this everyone that came onto the deck during the emergency? Even anyone that might have only been there for a moment?”
“As far as I remember.” Barton had logs of data up on his screen. “I’m filtering this down to the window of time. I should be able to identify where the command to disable the cameras came from, just give me a moment.”
“Can you give me the footage from the Command deck cameras too?”
Barton pulled it up and passed it over. Dia caught it and pulled it off. She spread it out on the desk, like a holographic model of the Command deck as seen from above. Barton sat on the upper row of the deck, aides on either side. Their attention was all on the main screen across the front of the deck showing the repair crew footage on the west pontoon gangway, spreading out to check the locks, and climbing up to the pontoons to check on the vent assemblies. Even though the image was small, Dia recognized Allison by her size, climbing up to the pontoons.
That wasn’t what she was looking for. She rotated the view around so that she could see the faces. Zeke was sitting in the second tier, down to the right of where Barton was. There were people around him but everyone was looking busy. No one stood out as paying any particular attention to what Zeke was doing.
She reached into the recording and spread it out, zooming in on Zeke’s station.
Zeke leaned closer to his screen, which showed her own face looking out at him. “Yes?”
“Zeke, is anyone taking a look at east pontoon?” Her voice actually sounded calm, serious. Interesting.
Zeke shook his head. “No! The problem is at the west pontoon! Clear the channel and get over there. We need everyone out on this.”
“I’m there, but Zeke, this can’t be an accident. Someone did this.”
Dia watched the people around Zeke. Was anyone watching the conversation?
“No one would —”
On his left was Tristyn Mars, the bulky engineer that had led much of the construction on the Aether. To his right, Jaimee Erickson, a biologist by trade, she’d worked on the hydroponic decks and currently was the supervisor for their agricultural division. Both glanced over but were busy with their own conversations with their people.
“It didn’t fail on its own! And if someone sabotaged this one, how do we know that they’re not over doing the other right now?”
Zeke bit his lip. His hands rubbed against the legs of his workall. He looked undecided. Then he pulled up secondary windows, views of the inside of the Aether, that obscured her image. Of course she hadn’t been able to see any of that at the time.
“Look, I’ll go check it out. You’ve got enough hands out there already as it is. Send someone to back me up, though. We need to catch the person responsible!”
He was looking for something in the footage. Maybe trying to see if he could see anything going on in that section of the ship? They didn’t have cameras everywhere. Command deck, a few key areas, but the pontoon lockers weren’t one of those areas. No one liked the idea of cameras in the locker rooms, even if they’d all seen everything in their years traveling out to Uranus.
Zeke stopped flipping through cameras and dismissed the windows with a quick swipe of his hand. He looked right at her image. “Go. Call in if you find anything.”
He killed the connection and turned to Tristyn. “I’ve got to go check something out. Watch my station, okay?”
“Of course,” Tristyn said.
Then Zeke got up and the image vanished. End of feed. Nothing about it suggested that he had disabled the cameras himself. If he had, she didn’t see him do it.
“I don’t see anything suggesting that Zeke disabled the feed,” Dia said.
Barton shook his head. “The logs show the commands coming from his station.”
“It must have been rerouted somehow from one of the other stations.”
Dia grabbed the feed and pulled it back, reversing everyone’s movements to the point just before Zeke was getting up. She zoomed in and focused on Tristyn. The big man’s screens were all focused on the work happening on the west pontoon. He was guiding the people working on the problem there. He barely looked at Zeke when Zeke left, just acknowledging Zeke asking him to watch the station. Then he slid his chair over to watch both stations.
She repeated the scene again with Jaimee as the focus. She was busy fielding calls on repairs to systems disturbed when the Aether lurched. Nothing suspicious there.
If it wasn’t them, then who? She pulled back the view from Jaimee’s screens to see the area around them and scrubbed back to the start of her call. The man sitting on the next tier down from Zeke twitched, turning when her call came in. Only a second and then his head was down and focused on his screens. Who was it?
She rotated and zoomed in on the man’s station. She recognized him. Not from the ships. He hadn’t served time with them. She’d last seen him on the Strip when she was eating noodles at Ricky’s. It was the cute newbie that she’d seen with three others on the strip. The same dark brown skin, and dark eyes. Really cute, thin and focused. To anyone looking, it looked like he was working hard, but why was her call mirrored on his screen? He was copying Zeke’s screen and that wasn’t his job. That station was assigned to atmospheric recycling. He touched his glasses and spoke too softly for the pickups to catch his words. He had called someone. The guy with the bombs?
“I’ve got something here,” she told Barton.
He leaned over, looking down at her display. She grabbed the image and threw it up onto the big holographic screen. Life-sized it, as if they were standing right next to the guy. She pointed at his screens.
“When my call came in, he was mirroring Zeke’s terminal, and watch, he calls someone.”
Dia set the scene playing back. The newbie talked for a few seconds and then turned back to his station. He pulled up command-line windows and started typing commands. He was fast and knew what he was doing. He executed his program just as Zeke was rising from his chair and the image cut out as the cameras were disabled.
“Good work,” Barton said. “See? We need you as sheriff.”
“That’s fine,” Dia said. “But there’s more. I saw that man in the Strip earlier with three other newbies. I’ll assume that the bomber was one of them. That left two others to pick up Zeke when he left the command deck. We have to assume that the three of them are planning something else. They tried to stop Zeke from helping me and counted on the bomber being able to handle me on his own.”
“They were wrong.”
Dia allowed herself a tight smile. “Yes, but their bomber friend killed himself instead of allowing himself to get captured. That doesn’t sound like people willing to give up easily. They have to have another plan to destroy the Aether. They had to know that we’d catch up to them. We need to know who we’re dealing with.”
She flipped through the roster Barton had given her of personnel on the control deck. The newbie traitor’s image looked up at her, his face serious.
“Allen Snow.” She scanned the details. Computer engineering background, with studies in management. Cute, he was the guy that she’d eyed on the Strip. Hell, why’d he have to end up being crazy? He’d worked on the exodus plan at the local level as a regional coordinator. One of the last people to leave in the final exodus launches. “I see why he was assigned to the command deck. He has the skills to severely compromise our systems. What do we have on the bomber?”
Barton flicked her another profile.
“Kyle Gerard.” His profile matched what Barton already told her. Skills that let him use the materials for the mining launches to design and build the bombs. He was one of the four men that she’d seen with Snow at the Strip.
“I need the roster of all of the new men on the Aether. If I can identify the other two that I saw with Snow and Gerard, we might have an idea of what they are planning next.”
“Give me a second,” Barton said. “I’ll pull it up.”
Barton worked. Dia tapped her foot, waiting.
Barton turned, sliding a pair of profiles across to her side of the screen. A muscle in his jaw twitched.
“Jaylend Roy and Del Cole. I recognize their names. We considered ourselves lucky to get them. Diaspora had them working on the fusion generator projects on Earth. The idea was to install generators in cities around the world, clean, cheap power.”
“I’m familiar with it. Nobody wanted them.”
“They didn’t trust us,” Barton said. “Or believe the prices that we were willing to offer. That’s beside the point. Misters Roy and Cole traveled all over working on the generators. They weren’t the guys selling the technology, they were the guys building it. They were supposed to upgrade our generators and work on creating newer, smaller models for the ships and outposts. Blackstone wanted us shipping out generators along with the hydrogen shipments.”
It sucked. “You’re telling me that these two could compromise our generators?”
“Blow us the hell up, shut them down and let us freeze and fall, whatever they want.” Barton reached for the screen. “I’ll send out an alert. Tell everyone to be on the look-out for these three.”
Dia caught his arm. “Don’t.”
“Don’t? They could blow us up at any moment!”
“If they’re cornered, maybe that’s what they do, before we’re ready. If they think they have time? Maybe they aren’t as quick to die as their friend.”
“What do you want us to do?”
She gave him a smile and leaned into his arm. “You wanted me to be sheriff. Let me take a shot at finding them.”
It was a leap, a gamble with all of their lives, but if they did it Barton’s way she was sure that one of the three would simply blow the Aether sky high. The only reason that she even thought they had a chance was the fact that the guys hadn’t already blown them all up or froze them out, to dropped them down into the depths. It suggested that at least one of the traitors wanted to stay alive.
“Okay, sheriff Rhodes. We’ll do it your way.” He pointed a finger at her. “Pray that you’re right.”
Dia shook her head. “I never pray, but if I’m wrong, I hope you get a chance to tell me you told me so before we’re dead.”
The Aether was sort of like a brain. It had two hemispheres. Not perfect spheres either, but like a lumpy brain, the east and west halves were longer than tall. Each was divided into seven levels, eight if you counted the command deck up spanning the top across the front of the colony. The levels housed the colony residents, the agricultural levels where they grew their food in hydroponic trays, mechanical levels that kept the whole thing working, and the industrial levels that housed their manufacturing and power generation facilities. Everything that people took for granted back on Earth, was concentrated here, compressed into this sort-of brain-shaped habitat that hung between the two massive pontoons in a web of cables. The whole thing was big too, bigger than skyscrapers back on Earth in terms of the sheer volume that it enclosed. Taking just the Strip, that ran along the bottom of the colony between the two halves, there were a ton of places to hide. As people had moved in they made use of all of the small pockets and folds in the structure. Even if she could search the whole thing there was nothing to stop them from moving on from one hiding place to the next, avoiding her search.
Dia walked down the corridor from the Old Man’s office to the nearest lift.
Her, sheriff? That was a big change. Sheriff of a colony that included, original colonists and exodus personnel combined, over two hundred different people. How was she going to police all of that? How could she find the fugitives before they destroyed the Aether or hatched some other equally disastrous plan?
She couldn’t trust communications. Snow must have already planted ways to watch the official discussions. Maybe he didn’t have access to Barton’s office systems. It didn’t matter. She had to assume that he did, and knew that she had identified them, and was coming for them. If she was wrong, they’d still assume that someone was coming for them. They’d probably be expecting a lock-down on the colony. Everyone restricted to quarters, armed personnel moving through the colony, searching for them.
In that case she couldn’t give them what they expected.
The lift dinged. She stepped inside and keyed the fourth level, the lowest she could get in this section. The elevator dropped down.
Then she wouldn’t do anything. No lock-down. No search. Let Barton respond to the questions about what had happened. It’d make them wonder, no matter what they knew. What was she doing? Why wasn’t there a response? People on the colony would be suspicious and paranoid over the lack of a response from the administration. Barton wasn’t the sort to lie to his people, he’d say something like the investigation was ongoing.
And everyone would want to know what she was doing, including the traitors.
When the elevator dinged on the lowest level, Dia walked out and took the shortest route over to the Strip. She stepped out beneath the bright lights and it was almost like daylight, except upside down because of the clouds far below.
She strolled. She lingered at a keepsakes booth to admire a stuffed teddy bear with glass eyes. He was full of barley, and heavy. It been brought out from Earth, the original owner either died or traded it away. There was something lonely about the bear.
Heretic White ran the booth. He was short and thin, not a bit of fat on him. Bright tattoos covered his arms. He wore his graying hair back in a long ponytail that stretched all the way down his back over the decorated black workall he wore. Dia put the bear down.
“Cute. Probably not my style.”
“No, no,” Heretic said. “I think a teddy bear would inspire great confidence in our new sheriff.”
“News travels fast.”
Heretic cocked a head at his holographic screen. “The Old Man made an announcement. All reassuring, with Dia Rhodes, the hero of the day, being appointed sheriff and continuing the investigation into the man that tried to blow up the pontoon locks. I know I’m going to sleep better tonight.”
He picked up the bear. “Although maybe I’ll keep this close.”
“Just because someone went crazy, it’s no reason to worry. It’s not like you and I haven’t seen someone freak out before.”
In the heart of the ship. Travis Hunt claiming that space-born spiders were spinning webs between the stars to catch them all. That all that dark matter between the stars was actually spider webs. They were flying out into spider webs. She and Heretic had helped hold him down while the doc sedated him.
“No, not the first time,” Heretic said. “What’re you doing now?”
She shrugged. “My new job. Taking a look around, walking the beat, seeing what people are up too. I think it’s about time we had a police presence.”
Heretic scowled. “Before you know it, it’s going to be just like it was back on Earth!”
She laughed. “That won’t bother you — you’ll be on the first interstellar ship. Assuming, of course, that they let you on!”
Heretic pointed the bear. “You bet! Who wouldn’t?”
Dia shook her head. “I’ve come as far as I’m going to come. I don’t plan on serving time between the stars until I’m old and dead, never to see the new worlds.”
“It won’t be like that, Titan proved it. I’ll bet Blackstone’s already working on the first ships.”
“Maybe.” Dia lifted a hand. “I’ll see you Heretic. Take it easy.”
“Yeah, you too. Sheriff.”
She moved on. She stopped at some booths, greeting people she knew, taking her time. People watched her, turning around, pointing her out. She smiled and nodded, trying to look relaxed. Her muscles ached and her rib protested and what she really wanted to do was go home and sleep. But she needed to be seen, to seem unconcerned. Let the traitors think they had time to put whatever alternate plans they had into motion. She didn’t want the cornered animals to know they were cornered. The last thing she needed was a panic reaction. They hadn’t blown up the Aether, if that’s what they wanted to do, they’d have done it.
Maybe they did plan on blowing everything up, but maybe they didn’t want to take Gerard’s way out. In that case, they’d want to put an escape plan into action.
At Ricky’s she sank into her familiar old seat, stifling the gasp of pain as her rib flared up. Ricky herself came out with her big hips swaying one way and her long blond hair framing her face like a halo. Ricky had one of those faces, almost masculine, but with a strong sensuality that shone through. She gave Dia her big, and on Ricky that was really big, smile as she came to the table with a steaming bowl and a cold glass of beer.
“Food’s on the house, Sheriff! You’re a hero. Everyone’s talking about it. You saved us all from that crazy fuck!”
“In the right place at the right time.” Dia accepted the fork Ricky offered, as she set down the bowl. “But I won’t say no to your noodles! Oh, and dumplings!”
Ricky put a finger to her scarlet lips. “Those are for my special customers.”
Dia speared one of the dumplings and took a bite. It was stuffed with spicy meat and cheese! Heavenly. She moaned, and devoured the rest.
She swallowed. “You’ve been holding out on me.”
Ricky shrugged. “I have to ration what I have, same as everyone. You enjoy that now.”
“Thank you,” Dia said. “It’s perfect before I hit the sack.”
Ricky headed back into her restaurant.
The noodles and dumplings were fabulous. No sense in letting them go to waste and she needed to give everyone a chance to see her anyway. She drank a bit of the beer. Not too much. She wanted to project an unconcerned image. Inside, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Three other men were out there with connections to Gerard. She needed to find them and lock them down before they could do any more damage to her home.
Dia picked up the empty bowl and the half-empty glass of beer and returned both to the bus-bot. Time to turn in and hit the sack, or look that way. She stretched her arms out and yawned. Then she headed on out of the Strip, waving and nodding to people as she went.
If Snow was watching, the saboteurs would think that she was turning in for the day. They’d see this as their opportunity to move.
As soon as she got into her quarters she stripped off her shirt and shorts, tossing them into the cleaning bin. The tape binding her rib was uncomfortable, but not as bad as it’d be without it. She checked the tape, but it looked fine. The room was a standard small suite. One room with a bed, drawers, desk and holoscreen. It was a lot more than the exodus personnel had in their inflatable, temporary dormitories. She took a clean, almost unused workall from her narrow closest and pulled it on. She never wore the workalls, preferring her t-shirts and shorts. Everyone knew that.
She slipped on a pair of the minimal black standard issue shoes too, and pulled the hood up out of the workall’s collar over her head. A pair of tinted safety glasses, and a pair of gloves, and she looked like someone that worked around hazardous substances. But not much like a pixie sheriff with the spiky blue hair. The one thing she couldn’t do anything about was her height, but it wasn’t like she was the only one on the station that short.
Then she went to the door and opened it a crack. The corridor outside was empty. She slipped out and moved off down the corridor at a quick pace, like someone with someplace to go. Which she did have. There was a stop she had to make before she started the hunt.
Gray Ess was a white-haired radical anarchist with ambitions to run her own colony. She’d preached about it when they were serving time on the trip out to Uranus, urging the crew to elect her as their leader instead of Barton. That said, she had a sort of thing for Barton. When no one backed her position she went along with what everyone else wanted. That didn’t stop her from campaigning for less government, even while she was obviously in love with the Old Man. It was funny, and sad, all at the same time. Barton knew about her feelings and didn’t return them.
Not that Gray Ess was an unattractive woman, she was, well, elegant. Neat. And a talented industrial engineer. Dia made her ways through the corridors, unnoticed in her passing, to Gray’s workshop.
It was hot inside. Machine and bot parts covered the workbenches that filled the long, narrow space. Racks of shelving ran along the right-hand side, filled with crates of equipment and parts. This was where they came for every single spare part they needed from a washer to a whole new fan assembly. Gray stood in the middle of a wrap-around holographic screen, moving virtual machine parts in space, building something out of light.
Gray walked through the hologram. “What can I do for you?”
Dia took off the glasses.
“Dia!” Gray smiled and spread her arms. “Come here!”
Dia went to Gray and embraced her, inhaling the faint oil smell of the woman. Gray felt strong beneath her arms, though thin. Dia stepped back.
“You doing okay, Gray?”
“Are you asking as the Sheriff?”
Dia shook her head.
“In that case, yes. I’m doing okay. I focus on the work, you know? The rock jocks keep me busy working on their equipment. They’re hard on it.”
“You take time to stop and eat?”
“From time to time.”
“Good. I need to ask you for a favor.”
“Anything for you, you know that.”
They’d worked closely back when they served time, keeping the ship working.
“I need a weapon. Something that can put a man down, but I’d prefer something non-lethal.”
Dia saw the uneasiness in Gray’s tightened mouth. Arming a sheriff? That was not the sort of thing that Gray believed in.
“We’ve got three men out there, with the capability of blowing up the Aether. I need to stop them. I can’t do it without something to even the odds.”
“I heard that the other man died.”
The torch swept across flesh, searing the man as he screamed. Dia pushed the image out of her mind. He had been trying to kill them all over some crazy alien fantasy. “He killed himself. I didn’t kill him.”
“You hurt him pretty bad, I hear.”
That hurt. “Would it make you feel better if I showed you the bruises? The broken rib? If I hadn’t stopped him we wouldn’t be having this conversation. He was going to blow all the locks on the pontoon. You know what that would have meant.”
Gray gave a slow nod.
“I didn’t have a choice. And as much as I’d like to think we’re safe, we have to get these three men into custody and find out what they’re planning. We also need to know if there are any more here, or at the other colonies.”
“I get it,” Gray said. “I thought we left all that behind when we left Earth.”
“People are people, no matter how far you go. It was going to happen sooner or later.”
“We should be better than that.”
“No arguments there. Are you going to help me?”
“Of course. I have something that might do the trick.” Gray beckoned, turning away.
Dia followed her around the workbenches, down the rows of shelving. Several rows down, Gray turned into the stacks. She pulled a long box from the bottom shelf. It dropped with a loud thud to the floor. Dia was intrigued.
“What’s in the box?”
Gray thumbed the biometric lock. When the light turned green she flipped the catches and shoved up the lid. It fell back to the floor.
There were three long guns nestled into the foam inside. The lid was also filled with foam, holding dozens of gray golf balls. Gray lifted one of the guns out. It was as long as her forearm, fat and a dull, dark gray color. The barrel was huge, clearly sized for the balls in the lid. Gray turned the gun and hit a released on the grip. It rotated outward, revealing a hollow interior with a track. She picked up a ball and dropped it in, then quickly added five more.
She snapped it shut. “Six shots, then you need to reload.”
“You made a cannon?”
Gray shook her head. “I didn’t make this. It was made back on Earth. Standard issue, Barton gave it to me for safe-keeping. We didn’t think we needed it.”
“It’s a cannon!”
“Actually, no.” Gray ran her hand along the barrel. “It’s non-lethal.”
“It looks pretty fucking lethal.”
“Part of the design. It’s meant to look intimidating. The spheres are bioreactive. They spread out on contact and deliver nerve-shocks when you use the panel here.” Gray’s thumb slid across the panel, which lit up from yellow, to red as she slid her thumb up the arc. “Redder is more intense. It’s direct nerve stimulation, painful but not physically harmful. Safer than electric shock weapons or drugs.”
Gray slid her thumb down the arc to the bottom and handed the gun over to Dia.
She took it. The weight was substantial, but comfortable. Over-sized in her hands but not too much. She could still reach the controls on the grip. She held it two-handed, using her left to hold the barrel and steady the weapon.
“Do you want more ammunition?”
Dia looked down. The spheres were bulky. “No. If I can’t do this with six shots, I doubt I’ll have time to reload anyway. This is perfect, thank you.”
Gray snapped the lid shut. “Don’t. I hate that this is necessary.”
“The alternative is worse,” Dia said.
Gray picked up the case and slid it back into place. She stood up. “You’re probably right. Why are these people trying to destroy the Aether?”
“They’re Origin followers. Aliens will exterminate us all for breaking quarantine, and all that nonsense. It’s gotten worse since the Titan discovery.”
“It’s sad that we haven’t moved beyond such superstitions. That might be a reason that we shouldn’t be spreading out into the universe.”
Dia shrugged. “Whatever the reason, I’m not about to let them destroy our home. Not if I can stop them.”
“Thank you,” Gray said. “I know it’s not easy. I’m not trying to make it harder.”
Dia reached out and Gray took her arm. They hugged quickly. Then Dia took the gun and headed out of the workshop. On the way she swiped a dirty towel on one of the workbenches and draped it over the gun. Walking the corridors with the weapon might draw a bit of attention.
Now all she had to do was find Snow and the others.
She went to the nearest ventilation shaft access and used Allison’s codes to gain access, logging it as routine maintenance. Nothing that would attract Snow’s attention if he was watching the systems for her. There weren’t cameras in the shafts, so she could move unseen through the Aether. All she had to do was figure out where they would be holed up.
Inside the narrow shaft she braced her legs against the opposite wall, grimacing at the pain in her cracked rib, and pulled up schematics on her glasses. She switched to projection mode and let the holographic display engulf her vision.
She was here, on the west side, third level ventilation shaft. There was a lot of the colony to search, to find the three men. They might have separated, but it was more likely that they were staying together. Easier to communicate with one another, less chances of exposure. That put them out of the main public areas. Even without a bulletin alert out on them, they had to assume that they had been identified and linked with Gerard. Since Barton hadn’t locked things down, they had to assume that she and others were actively looking for them. So nowhere with cameras. Snow had shown he was able to disable the cameras when it suited him, but a section with the feed shut down would be an obvious flag where they were hiding. They might also have Zeke with them, if he was still alive. Fifty-fifty chance there. Alive, they could move him if necessary, and use him as a hostage. A body was harder to handle, most likely if he was dead they’d already stashed his body somewhere.
Dia used all of that to filter down the remaining areas. Everything else dimmed. Quarters, access passages, storage areas, all remained. It was still a lot of areas to check. Doing so would take her forever, assuming they didn’t make their move or change their location.
Wherever they were, Snow would want access to hard-wired systems. Remote access limited what he could do. And if they had targeted the fusion generators they’d want to stay close, that put them out at the lower deck. Auxiliary access was located on the bottom level, adjacent to the main generator sections. She zoomed in on that section and pulled up the maintenance logs.
The secondary auxiliary station for generator two showed an offline status for repairs. It was Zeke’s command codes that issued the order, after he had left the command deck. Snow had had Zeke’s codes to mirror Zeke’s station. That had to be where they were hiding. The room was small, four meters to a side with only one way in. The systems there could access the controls for generator two. If they did want to blow the generator, that was a good place to be.
It did, however, also connect to the ventilation systems, to keep down the excess heat.
Dia smiled and dismissed the schematics. It was about to get hot down there.
Climbing down the shaft was a pain in the ass. This was where a lower gravity environment would have been nice. Some of those worlds out there people could almost float around, the gravity was so low. Of course they also had to deal with potential bone loss and other issues, but still. It’d be nice right now. Carrying the gun was also awkward. She ended up unzipping the front of her workall and stuffed the gun down the front, after making sure that the safety was engaged.
It took nearly a half-hour to reach the lower levels and move off into the lateral shafts. She took the main crawlspace and tried crawling quietly.
Fifteen minutes later she approached the auxiliary access room. The feeder shafts to the room were too small for her to enter. That was okay. She wasn’t planning on using it to get into the room. Checking the schematics in her glasses, she identified the fan unit on that feeder shaft.
She used her multi-tool to undo the bolts holding it in place, then pulled it out, carefully. This one hadn’t been greased either. It made a bit of noise, not much. Hopefully nothing that carried. Reversing the fan only took a moment, switching around the wires. She gritted her teeth and pushed it slowly back into place. Now, instead of drawing off the hotter air, it would blow hot air back into the room. In that small space, it wouldn’t take long before the room was becoming intolerably hot.
Grinning, Dia made her way around to the nearest access point.
Popping out the grating, Dia bent in half and slithered out. As she straightened she realized she wasn’t alone. Ted Walton’s shoulders relaxed. His wild red hair was a good match for her blue hair.
“Dia! What are you doing?”
Dia pulled the gun from the ventilation shaft. Ted’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open. Dia put a finger to her lips. “It might be best if you don’t make any noises,” she said quietly, “the guys that are trying to destroy the Aether are around the corner.”
Ted pressed against the wall.
Dia eased along the corridor to the corner and peeked around.
The door at the end was still closed. The room might not have gotten too hot yet, but it shouldn’t take long. They’d have to open the door if they didn’t want to bake.
She pressed her back against the wall and breathed in deep, wincing as the tape around her chest squeezed her rib. She couldn’t wait too long before going in after them. If they realized that the increasing temperature was an attempt to smoke them out, then they might go ahead with blowing up the colony. The fact that they hadn’t yet, still suggested that the Origin fanatics might be planning to escape the destruction. If they didn’t want to die it’d work in her favor. Cornering them might change the balance.
Ted was watching her from across the corridor. She gestured and lightly patted the wall beside her. He rubbed his jaw then slipped across the corridor and pressed up against the wall beside her.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Waiting for them to open the door to auxiliary control.”
“Why would they do that?”
“It’s getting hot in there by now.”
Ted glanced at the ventilation shaft and then back to her, and the gun that she held against her chest. “What if they don’t come out?”
“It be obvious if I went down and tried to open the door. If they want to lock me out, I don’t know what else I can do.”
“Why not trigger an evacuation alert for that room? It’ll automatically open the door.”
Obvious. One of the safety measures to ensure that they could evacuate people that might be unconscious. Snow might not have shut it off. It’d also completely give away any surprise. If she did this, that was it. No other option. She’d have to hit the door as she could and hope that Gray’s gun would help her take them out before they could destroy the Aether. She couldn’t call Barton and ask. There wasn’t anyone to ask. It was her decision and it had to be made now.
“You do that,” she said, “and I’ll go for the door.”
“Me?” his voice squeaked.
“Yes. Now, Ted. I have to get in there.” The fact that the door hadn’t opened yet was giving her a bad feeling. She wanted to know what was going on inside that room.
For all she knew it was already too late.
Ted pulled out a tablet and pulled up a remote access to the system. She glanced at the screen and saw he was about to trigger the alert.
Now. Now. Dia rolled around the corner and charged the door at the far end. Ted, be right about this. She wasn’t stopping, wasn’t slowing down for nothing. It’d look pretty silly if she slammed right into the door. She slid her thumb up the intensity dial on the gun, pushing it up into the red zone.
The door popped open two strides before she would have smashed right into it. A wash of hot air came out. There was a man in the doorway, his pale face shiny with sweat. She was holding the gun in front of her and she fired. The kickback was hard enough to make her stumble but the gray ball slammed into the man’s chest and threw him back like a rag doll. The ball deformed on contact. It splashed out across him, creating a network of gray strands. His limb body crashed to the ground as she ran into the room yelling.
Two men. Far side of the room. One of them standing in the middle of several holographically projected screens. Dia fired the gun. This time she was ready for the kickback. It didn’t surprise her as much. Her first shot hit the shoulder of the man in the middle of the holographic screens and threw him to the wall. He twitched and convulsed as he dropped to the floor.
The other man was moving, ducking and running behind the bulky control stations and valves that filled the side of the room.
Dia kept the gun trained on the spot where he disappeared and waited. “Come out now, hands were I can see them.”
“Why?” A voice behind the equipment taunted. “It’s not going to matter in a minute anyway.”
Hell. Dia backed across the room into the floating holographic screens. It was what she feared. They’d overridden the protocols protecting the second generator. Heat was building up and soon the superconducting fields would fail, releasing the containment in an instant. A nuclear blast that would destroy the Aether. The process was already underway.
There was movement outside the screens. The last guy standing was making a run for the doorway. She swiped her thumb across the intensity dial, turning it down and fired as he ran into the corridor. The shot took him high on his right buttocks. He yelled and pitched forward. He didn’t have control of his limbs so he hit hard, face down. His whole body shook and jerked as the nerve stimulation spread through his body, but from the yelling he was making, he wasn’t knocked out by it.
It was Snow. Dia walked out of the room, her finger on the trigger to deliver another jolt. Ted peeked around the far end of the short corridor. She jerked her thumb at the room.
“Ted, get in there. Call everyone. Fix it.”
He came around the corner at a run, then hugged the wall as he went past the groaning Snow. Snow started picking himself up off the floor.
“Why’d you do it?” she asked. “You’ll die with the rest of us.”
“Wouldn’t you die to save all of humanity?” Snow asked. He groaned and rolled over on his side, looking up at her with his pretty dark hazel eyes. “What’s a few hundred people against that?”
“You really believe that vengeful aliens are going to come down and smite us all if we don’t stick to our planet?”
Snow licked his lips and nodded. “It’s all there, in history. They told us the rules. That most of us forgot isn’t an excuse.”
Ted appeared back in the doorway. “Um, Dia, I don’t know if I can stop this overload.”
Her heart was already pounding. She took a deep breath and let it out. If anything she was sad. Sad, that all this work was about to be undone by a crazy man.
She swiped up the dial on the weapon just until it started into the yellow and pulled the shock trigger. Snow grunted like someone had kicked him in the balls and convulsed on the deck. Her stomach churned. She let go and his convulsions stopped. He gasped for air, and when he got his breath back, he managed a chuckle.
“Do what you want. Won’t matter. I’m not going to break in the time you have left.”
She believed him. “Ted!”
Ted popped back out. She thrust the gun into his hands. “He tries to get away, hit that.”
Inside the auxiliary control room she took in what she’d already seen on the screens. The heat building up. There wasn’t any easy way to stop the process. It was dozens of systems rerouted. Soon it’d get hot enough for the magnetic fields to fail. All it took was a tiny breach to let the fusion material escape and it’d blow the whole thing.
Unless she did something entirely different.
“Ted!” Her hands danced across the controls. “Drag him in here!”
“Drag him in here!”
Alarms sounded in the corridors outside. She worked fast. She’d get one chance at this, if that.
Across the Aether emergency doors slid shut except in the corridors that she selected. Those doors opened up. From the bottom level all the way to the upper level.
Ted dragged Snow into the control chamber moments before the door slid shut.
She hit the last command and the outermost doors opened. The atmospheric pressure outside was the same as inside, but it was much, much colder outside. Down to around 60 degrees Kelvin. The warmer air inside boiled out into space, pulling the colder atmosphere into the reactor room. She didn’t have any way to know if anyone had gotten trapped in the corridors by the process. Hopefully not. The colder temperatures outside would hold the generator until she had time to work through what Snow had done.
“What are you doing?” Snow asked from the floor.
“Shock him if he tries anything,” she told Ted.
Then she went to work. Barton called minutes later, interrupting her. She put him off and kept working. Thirty minutes later she had enough control of the system that she was pretty sure that the generator wasn’t going to blow up. Sweat was soaking her clothes. The rerouted fan was pumping heat into the room. It was slightly better than freezing in the corridors outside but not much. It took another twenty minutes to finish the work and seal off the outer doors so that she could purge the corridors and bring everything back online.
“Someone else will stop you,” Snow said as she finished.
The door to the corridor went up. Dia walked through the holographic screens and took the gun from Ted. She dialed up the intensity.
“Maybe. It won’t be you.” She hit the button and knocked Snow out. She glanced over at Ted. “Call Barton, get someone to pick these goons up. I suggest he ship them back to Earth. I’m going to go get cleaned up and take a nap. I worked my ass off today. I deserve a break.”
Worked her ass off. She snorted a laugh. Maybe today she’d finally get some sleep.
This story is the 8th weekly short story release, and the 8th Planetary Bodies story. It sad that Uranus is the butt of the solar system jokes. It’s a fascinating planet that deserves its own dedicated probe (I’m terrible). 😉 Tipped on its side, complete with its own ring system and bunch of moons it’s a fascinating world.
I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the series links at the top of the page. Check back next week for another Planetary Bodies story. Next up is Neptune Bound.