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EDGE and Tesseract are imprints of Hades Publications, Inc.

Beltrunner

by Sean O達rien   PREVIOUS CATALOG PAGE   BOOK LIST   NEXT CATALOG PAGE 

Beltrunner by Sean O達rien
Enlarge Cover

ABOUT THE BOOK

GENRE:
  Science Fiction
  Action & Adventure



    KINDLE
    KOBO
    NOOK
    iTUNES


E-BOOK:
ISBN: 9781770531024
EPUB, MOBI, PDF
$5.99 US
$5.99 CDN


BISAC:
  FIC028000
  FIC028090

Beltrunner

by Sean O達rien
Copyright ゥ 2016 by Sean O達rien


Chapter One

"Come on, come on. Show me the Ps." It was becoming a liturgy. Collier hadn't even raised the cabin lights he had programmed Sancho to let him sleep, for all the good it had done him but the glow from the console was more than enough to illuminate his craggy features. Rocinante was still executing her flyby of M-1875, sending back telemetry to Collier in the Dulcinea in full 3D color. Sancho was doing his best to analyze the data, as he always did, but Collier knew better than to rely solely on the computer. He was looking for something he couldn't ever put into words, no matter how many belters back in Ceres had asked him to try. Not that he had been the center of any conversations for many years now. He had, at best, been a quaint curiosity some time ago, but now was an eccentric old man who was close to becoming a nuisance.

"There! There it is! Mark it and bring Rocinante back in, Sancho," Collier rewound the telemetry to the precise moment he had seen the signs, and told Sancho to lock the coordinates.

"Coordinates locked in. Rocinante returning to her stable, Skipper," Sancho confirmed cheerfully. "I'm always curious, boss what did you see?"

Collier had never been able to explain the markings of a P-vein on the surface: indeed, he had been caught more than a few times excavating what he was sure would be a strike only to find nickel and iron. But he was not about to abandon his methods. Deep impact probes were far more reliable, but they were expensive consumables he simply couldn't afford. Rocinante was not equipped for laser mining, as many of the third-generation rock hounds were. All Collier had were his instincts and subjective experiences. And hope. Still, he made an attempt to explain his art to his computer.

"There is a fissure there, running from the top right to the bottom left. Do you see it?"

"Sure."

"That's a heavy-metal impact fissure. Bound to be some P in it, or at least nearby."

"How do you know it's an impact fissure? Couldn't it be just cleavage in the rock?"

Collier snorted. "I know cleavage when I see it, Sancho. That's not it. Takes a man to tell the difference."

"What?"

"Never mind. Rocinante back yet?"

"Still on approach. I've got a good track. Her stable is ready all lights green."

"Good. When she's tucked in, take us to M-1875. Right over the fissure. How's the spin?"

"Not too bad. Well under tolerance levels. Do you want to attach correctors?"

Collier shook his head. "Not if I don't have to. Takes up fuel. I'll just go down myself, start cutting. Hover us one hundred meters away, but don't deploy the canopy. What's your estimated time until hover?"

"Rocinante should be tucked in about ninety minutes from now. Under standard procedure, it will take me about two hours to achieve stable hover over the coordinates. So three and a half hours, Skipper."

"Great. Just time for a nap. Wake me when we get there. Or if there's a fire or something."

"If there痴 a fire, I値l just evacuate the oxygen. Sleep well, Skipper."

Collier laughed at the computer痴 joke, glad at the machine痴 attitude. He had long dismissed the question of Sancho's self-awareness as immaterial and worthless. It pleased him that the almost hopelessly outdated computer had quirks and bugs including, possibly, sentience. That ill-fated experiment was one of the few taboo subjects left in the system. Earth was rumored to still have hundreds of thousands of rogue Calibans who had blended into the background of the planet's artificial workforce. Perhaps some had left the planet to Luna or even Mars no one was certain. Collier suspected that someday, Sancho's increasingly corrupted programming would reduce him to uselessness, but he dared not take him in for an overhaul. If he had achieved sentience, Collier would be held liable. He did not relish the idea of being ground up in the Ceres bioconverter for fertilizer. And anyway, if Sancho were sentient, the computer would be killed as well in an overhaul. No, better to continue as he was, with a quirky, erratic computer who asked odd questions. Collier drifted off to sleep with a smile on his lips.

*

"New contact," Sancho痴 voice woke Collier instantly. "Approaching at 23 meters per second relative velocity. Distance 345.6 kilometers and closing."

"What the hell? Who is it?" Collier tore loose the sleep restraint and shoved off toward the control seat. Even as he maneuvered into his station he was glancing at Sancho痴 readouts. One look told him all he needed to know.

"Configuration suggests a mining vessel, highest probability"

"Ad Astra Corporation. Yeah." Collier heaved a sigh and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, as though girding himself for what he knew must come next. "Why didn稚 we see them from farther away?" he asked irritably.

"They were in obstruction," Sancho said.

Collier took a deep breath. No sense in blaming Sancho for that. "So, the Ad Astra guys want a piece of this rock too, huh?"

"Affirmative. I壇 say they are making for the same rock we are."

Collier studied Sancho痴 readout. The corporate mining ship would catch up to him in just over four hours at this velocity. They would get to the asteroid at about the same time. His eyes found Dulcinea痴 fuel supply indicator: every liter of propellant he used to increase his own velocity meant a slower return to Ceres later, but it might be worth it to get to the asteroid first and claim it before the corp could. Of course, there was no telling how fast the corp was willing to go to beat him to it.

"Let痴 talk to them, Sancho."

"Sure thing, Skipper," Sancho said brightly. After a momentary pause, he said, "Contact established. Comm ready when you are."

Collier drew his breath and said, in what he hoped was a cocksure drawl, "This is the Dulcinea to approaching corporate mining ship. Who are you, and what do you want with my rock?"

"Your rock, huh? I don稚 think you池e going to be able to make that stick, Col."

His eyes half-closed when he heard the voice. The sudden dryness in his mouth and slight stirring in his loins betrayed the conflict within him.

"Isa," he croaked.

"Corporate Captain Mitchell, Col. Been a while, hasn稚 it?"

There was no mistaking the casual venom in her voice. Even without a visual link, he could see her half-smirk and narrowed eyes. She always tried so hard to be serious and grim but in rare moments of total honesty with him, she had revealed secret insecurities and fears that had made him love her all the more.

For a time, at least.

"Yes, it has. And you still haven稚 answered me: what are you doing chasing my rock?"

"For starters, Col, it痴 not your rock. I know you haven稚 filed a claim on it, and you certainly haven稚 begun excavation. As far as I知 concerned, this is still a free asteroid. And we池e going to get there ahead of you." Isa痴 smugness was a shade too heavy.

"I致e got plenty of delta-vee in my tanks still, Isa," he said, deliberately emphasizing her name rather than use her title, "so unless you want to spend a lot of your corp痴 water, you should break off and look for another rock."

Isa chuckled mirthlessly. "Nice try, Col. You know we carry much more water than you. I can outrun you even from here, get to the rock ahead of you, set up the mine and begin processing while you池e still nursing those shit engines of yours. I知 surprised the Dulcet is still working, actually."

"Dulcinea. And she痴 never been better," he snapped. Isa knew very well how sensitive he was to comments about his boat. "You try to keep up, Isa. I知 going to get to the rock first, and then you値l have to lay off. Don稚 waste your corp痴 water on a stupid race you can稚 win."

"Since when are you so worried about Ad Astra痴 profit margin?"

"Since when are you?" He knew it was a childish rejoinder, but it came so swiftly and easily he barely knew he was saying it.

Isa sighed. "You never did understand, Col. But after the last six years, I would have thought you would have come to the same realization I had."

"Nope," he said, too much petulance in his voice. He winced at his own tone.

Silence from the other side, during which time Collier ached to ask Isa questions: questions that he had never fully put away. Why had she left that morning six years ago? Her long letter, written on real paper and left on his pillow in some old-fashioned gesture that angered him even more at the time, had said much but answered little. How many times in the past six years had he wished he had not spaced the letter? How many times had he wondered if he would ever find it again, floating in the belt?

His masculine pride won out, and Isa spoke before he succumbed to the wounds of the past. "Well. In any case, Col, this is the way it is now. I知 here, I have a corp behind me, and I will be able to get to the rock first. I知 only cruising now, but if I need to, I will fly by you like a missile and use an anchor on the rock to claim it. Ad Astra Corporation Mining Ship SCM-17, out."

Damn her. Damn her and her corporation.

Even as he thought that, he couldn稚 help but feel pleased that she had risen to prominence so quickly. He had always admired her cool competence that and her quirky moments of vulnerability had first fascinated then excited him.

Sancho痴 voice interrupted his thoughts. "Skipper, she痴 increased velocity. Relative velocity now 29 meters per second and increasing by point 9 meters per second."

"She痴 not kidding. Didn稚 know corp ships were allowed to move that fast I wonder what the performance is on the thrusters? She痴 going to have to flipbrake before long," he mused aloud. Isa had been right on at least one score: he had to save a certain amount of propellant for the return to Ceres, and Dulcinea痴 thrust efficiency was not what it used to be. Sancho had warned him about microfractures in some of the thrust tubes weeks ago: if superheated exhaust expanded the cracks, he would not only lose the race to the rock, but have to limp back to Ceres at reduced speed.

Damn it, he had to. Not only because he needed this strike, but also to show the corporation that a freelancer like him could not be shoved aside so easily. Ad Astra could not treat him this way, like an obsolete relic of a past time.

He didn稚 quite convince himself that the corporation was the target of his anger.

"Sancho, go to eighty percent thrust, and inform me of any changes in thrust tube integrity. If we are holding steady, we値l go to one hundred percent."

"Eighty percent thrust, aye. Recalculating vector to target. Recalculation complete, thrust in ten seconds. Secure for approximately one-eighth gee acceleration. Seven, six, five pre-thrust deicing complete, tubes primed two, one. Eighty percent."

Collier felt the gentle push into his chair as Dulcinea痴 engines labored.

Sancho chimed in again. "Revised telemetry: Ad Astra vessel relative velocity now forty-four meters per second, increasing by point two meters per second. Time to asteroid estimated at two hours, eighteen minutes."

Collier examined the data and squinted. "Will we beat them?"

"Impossible to say, Skipper. I don稚 know when she痴 going to flip and brake that depends on how much thrust she痴 capable of, how much propellant her captain is willing to use, how"

"All right, skip it. When do we have to flipbrake?"

"At our current acceleration, assuming you want to brake at the same rate, we should flip in forty-one minutes."

"Any cracks in the thrust tubes?"

Perhaps it was just his imagination, but Collier thought he heard fear in Sancho痴 voice. "Not yet. I can稚 say if they will crack or not."

"Let痴 go to one hundred percent thrust."

"We値l be dangerously low on propellant when we get to the rock, Skipper. It値l mean a very low-consumption return to Ceres."

"We値l mine water from the rock. Go to one hundred."

"Assuming there is any," Sancho muttered, and Collier couldn稚 help but smile at his computer痴 quirks. "Increasing thrust to one hundred percent. Stand by for approximately one-sixth gee. Five, four, three, two, one. One hundred percent."

The gentle weight increased almost imperceptibly. The sensation that he was lying on his back, looking "up" through the nose window, was a temporary illusion that he had little difficulty in dispelling. His years in space had trained his mind to ignore his inner ear.

"Revised telemetry. Ad Astra vessel relative velocity forty-five meters per second, decreasing very slowly. Under point one meter per second per second. New estimated time to asteroid one hour, fifty-five minutes. Flipbrake in twenty-two minutes."

"Still no way to tell if we will beat them?"

Sancho sounded slightly exasperated. "No, Skipper. Too many unpredictable variables."

"I know what you mean," Collier nodded.

"I didn稚 mean"

"Skip it. No need to be apologetic. We致e never really talked about women, have we, Sancho?"

"No, Skipper. I don稚 know what I can add to any discussion of romance. But I still have a rather extensive pornography collection."

Collier reddened. "Never mind that. I thought I told you to always forget when I access that?"

"You do. But I remember you telling me to forget it."

"We池e not talking about this. It痴 a perfectly normal, even healthy"

Sancho痴 voice went cold again as he interrupted. "Revised telemetry. Ad Astra vessel has increased her rate of acceleration. Relative velocity now forty-three meters per second, increasing by point two meters per second."

"Shit. She痴 not giving up." Collier thought for a moment. Perhaps Isa was right: if she was willing to expend this much water to chase down the rock, he wasn稚 going to be able to match her. Her ship obviously could outperform his, and she was not being miserly with her fuel.

"How are the tubes holding?"

"No increased damage so far. But the likelihood is that I won稚 be able to detect any cracks in time to shut down. If a tube cracks, we値l lose it."

"Can we go to one hundred and five percent thrust?"

Sancho was slow in replying. "Well, yes, but we won稚 gain much. And we may pass the fuel threshold: we may not have enough to return to Ceres without cold-sleep protocol."

"I told you, we池e going to mine water from the rock. Don稚 worry about fuel."

"If we go to one oh five, we run a greater risk of cracking a tube." It wasn稚 Collier痴 imagination: Sancho was clearly worried now.

"Okay. Let me think."

Sancho waited a beat, then said dryly, "That doesn稚 fill me with confidence, Skipper. Can I suggest that maybe Captain Mitchell was right? We can稚 win this rock."

"I値l be damned if I知 going to let her take this from me. Recalculate time of arrival at the asteroid assuming no flip-brake maneuver."

"I don稚"

"Just do it," Collier snapped.

"If we continue at our present rate of acceleration, we will reach the asteroid in thirty-nine minutes. And we値l be shattered to very small particles when we do."

"Okay. Alter course so that we will execute a flyby at five hundred meters distance from the asteroid."

"Are you sure about this, Skipper? I don稚 mean to challenge you, but this seems well, crazy. You remember you told me five years, ten months and twenty-three days ago terrestrial if you ever tried to kill yourself, I was to stop"

"Yes, Sancho, I remember. I知 not going to kill myself, or you. You池e going to drop me off when you get near the rock."

"Okay. That still sounds like you池e going to kill yourself, Skipper."

"I値l ride Rocinante and use its thrusters, plus my suit thrusters, to brake myself to a soft landing on the rock. You値l flipbrake as soon as I leave the ship and start coming back for me. I値l be fine on the asteroid until you get back. And once I land on it, it値l be mine: Isa won稚 be able to claim it."

Sancho was silent for a long while.

"Are you still there, Sancho?" This would be a hell of a time for his erratic computer to finally give up the ghost.

"Yes, Skipper. May I make a suggestion?"

"Sure."

"We don稚 need to get to the rock that far ahead of the Ad Astra vessel. We could still execute your plan, but not do it so late. Let me flipbrake late still too late to hover above the rock, but late enough to beat the Ad Astra ship. You can leave the ship with Rocinante and get to the asteroid in time to beat the corp ship, but not have so much velocity that you値l smash into it. I don稚 think Rocinante and your suit thrusters together can slow you down fast enough if Dulcinea is going as swiftly as she will be if I don稚 flipbrake."

Collier listened patiently and had to admit to himself that Sancho had a better plan. He didn稚 relish the thought of getting to the rock first but being a cloud of viscera when he did so. "Okay, Sancho, we値l do it your way. Arrange the flipbraking in such a way that our relative velocity to the rock will be one hundred meters per second. That slow enough for you?"

"Skipper, I am working with a very complex formula here, with too many variables I don稚 know. For example, while I know the thrust for Rocinante and your suit, I don稚 know how efficiently you will be able to line up your vector. If you池e not pretty fucking close to lined up, you won稚 brake fast enough. I can稚"

Collier cut off his computer with a laugh of genuine pleasure. "Sancho, that痴 the first time I think I have ever heard you swear."

"Well, damn it, this the first time you致e ever done something this batshit crazy."

Collier laughed again. "I appreciate the sentiment, Sancho, I really do. Start your calculations as best you can. I知 going aft to get into my suit."

"Okay. Can I back off the thrusters to eighty percent again? Now that we池e trying this stunt, we don稚 need to be at one hundred."

Collier nodded. "Sounds good. Go to eighty percent. Calculate the ejection point for me, let me know when you have a time on that."

"Aye aye."

Collier swam out of the control chair and glided expertly toward the airlock suite. The patched but still quite serviceable vacuum suit hung limply in its frame, imitating the posture and demeanor of an old warrior who had seen too many battles and too few glories. Collier zipped it open and wiggled inside, noting that the abdomen was still very tight. He had resisted tailoring the suit to accommodate his belly in the wan hope he would drop those five kilos one day, and indeed, the snugness of the midsection only served to remind him he needed to do more time in the Ceres centrifuge.

Otherwise, the suit fit quite well, and Collier allowed himself a few moments to enjoy the womblike feeling of security the suit afforded him.

"Sancho, is Rocinante fueled and ready?"

"Affirmative, Skipper. She痴 topped off. You値l need to leave the ship in just under twelve minutes maximum. Sooner would be better than later."

"Roger that, Sancho. I知 heading to the stable now. Open the bay doors and prepare Rocinante for EVA." Collier made his way along the cylindrical passageway that led to Dulcinea痴 belly where the scout vehicle was kept. He was glad there was little time to waste had he been left to think about his scheme, he might decide it was insane and give up the rock to Isa.

"Incoming message, Skipper."

"Route it to my suit," Collier said, twisting behind him to seal the integrated helmet to his suit. He could hear Isa痴 tinny voice coming through the earphones as he sealed and locked the helmet in place.

"There? Col? Please answer," he heard when he had finished with the helmet. Isa痴 voice was not quite panicky, but very concerned.

"Sorry, Isa, I missed the first part of your transmission. Say again?" He made sure his voice was as casual as could be.

"You池e aware you致e passed your flipbrake point? Are you in trouble? Has that bucket finally broken down?"

Collier痴 smirk vanished. "No, she hasn稚, and yes, I知 very aware of what I am doing. I told you: I知 not going to lose this rock. Not to you."

Silence for a moment, then: "Look, Col I think you池e taking this too far. Whatever you think about how I how we ended, that痴 no reason to, well, no reason to do this. I知 sure you"

Collier laughed, making no effort to disguise the scorn in his voice. "I知 not killing myself, Isa. Recheck your telemetry on me: Dulcinea痴 going to miss the asteroid by half a kilometer."

Isa did not answer immediately no doubt she was checking her tracking data. "Okay, then," she growled, obviously annoyed at having revealed emotion to him, "What the hell are you doing?"

"I don稚 think you need to know that just yet. You値l see soon enough. But," he added, his charm vanishing suddenly, "you won稚 win this rock. You may as well turn back now."

"I don稚 think you understand, Col," Isa said, her voice strangely calm and even tender. "This isn稚 a game you can win. Ad Astra has a lot of resources behind me. I致e been given quite a bit of latitude in operations to find and mine Ps. You, alone, won稚 be enough of an obstacle to stop them."

"禅hem?" Collier chuckled, then broke off as a thought occurred to him. "Speaking of Ps, why are you chasing this rock anyway? Do you know something about it?"

"Never seen it before."

"Then how?"

Isa did not sound pleased. "What do you think, Col? You think it痴 an accident we are both here at the same time?" At his silence, Isa almost shouted, "We池e tracking you, you idiot."

Collier stopped at the hatchway to Rocinante痴 stable. "I see. You wait for me to find Ps, then you come get them, is that it?"

"Yes."

"But I知 not always right. How do you know I知 right now?"

"I don稚 yet. I was going to send an impact probe toward the rock, see what we got. You don稚 use impacts, do you?"

"I don稚 have seventy thousand metals to waste every time I get a hunch, no."

"Yeah, well, the corp does. That痴 what I meant about resources, Col." She sighed. "You see what I mean? You can稚 win this. I知 not operating on a shoestring like you. I don稚 have to watch every ounce of water, every erg of energy. I can be wasteful and thorough. You"

"Well, it痴 been nice chatting with you, Isa, but I致e got a complicated thing here I gotta do," Collier said, surprised at the hurt in his voice. "So if you don稚 mind, I値l be silent for a while, and I壇 appreciate it if you could stay out of my way. Out." He bit down on the mic to end transmission, and almost violently opened the inner hatch to Rocinante痴 stable.

Of course Isa was following him he should have guessed that as soon as she had appeared on Sancho痴 telemetry. Did he honestly think it had been some kind of chance meeting, out here in the nearly infinite emptiness?

"You sure did," he said to himself. "You think you池e some kind of hard-bitten realist, living on facts and figures with no room for dreams, but you池e just as susceptible to romantic thinking as a lovelorn teenager. You liked to think some weird expression of Fate pulled you two back together, as if to tell you she had been wrong to leave you, and now was coming back."

Shit.

"Ejection point in six minutes, Skipper. I really suggest you get going. If you wait too much longer, the"

"I know, Sancho. I知 in the bay now," he said, opening the outer door to reveal the blackness of the Belt. Rocinante was still attached to her "hitching post"預 collection of wires, cables, and fuel lines that held her securely to Dulcinea痴 hull.

A sudden thrill shot through him. As far as he knew, this had never before been attempted at least, not at such velocity. The common mythology surrounding Belters and shared by the rest of the system was one of reckless heroism: a combination of pioneering spirit and unbalanced avarice that most closely resembled the ancient frontiersman from Earth痴 North American settler movement. (At least, so Collier was led to believe from his scant and irregular contacts with Martians, Jovians, and the rare Earther.) In fact, Belters were a remarkably conservative and cautious lot in their day-to-day lives. The act of becoming a Belter might be one of desperation, but in practice, Belters carved a very even, predictable, mundane course.

Collier was an exception.

"Ready to run through the checklist, Sancho?" he asked, as he carefully mounted Rocinante, finding handholds and footholds among her various antennae.

"What checklist? I致e never even remotely examined this EVA for feasibility, much less designed a check"

"Calm down. I知 only joking," Collier chuckled. "Stand by to release hitching lines from Rocinante. Transfer her guidance controls to my mic, too, while you池e at it."

"Copy that. Comm line transferred. She痴 under your command, Skipper. Good luck."

"Thanks." He gripped the two antennae tightly and made sure he was well away from Rocinante痴 exhaust vents in his direction of travel. "Let 粗r rip, Sancho."

He felt a slight tug upward as Rocinante痴 attitude thrusters gently pushed her "down" from Dulcinea痴 hull. Dulcinea appeared to shoot upward at a fairly rapid pace as the little scout left her.

"I知 away clean. Let me get a little distance before you fire up your thrusters again."

"Copy that."

"Rocinante, minus Y-axis thrust, fifty percent, continuous burn. On mark."

"Acknowledged," came the lifeless voice of the scout痴 dedicated computer.

"Three two one mark." As soon as he said it, he felt a much more severe tug upward that threatened to dislodge him from the antennae. His right foot left its hold and he fought panic as he repositioned it on another outcropping. Dulcinea raced away from him and he had to remind himself that he wasn稚 falling through the void. The thrust couldn稚 have been much more than one-tenth of a gee, but it was enough to force his brain to override the trap-door feeling in his stomach.

"You致e got some kick, girl," Collier said when his breath returned.

"Everything okay, Skipper?" Sancho asked.

"Seems to be. Can you give me a rough idea of how long I値l need to keep this thrust going to meet the asteroid?"

"Nope. I don稚 know how long or hard you plan to thrust away. Cut your Y-axis thrust and get ready for minus Z-axis burn. When you do that, I値l be able to get an idea."

"Okay. Rocinante, cut minus Y-axis thrust on mark. Three two one mark."

The sudden return of weightlessness was a welcome feeling. He could no longer see Dulcinea he had no reference points with which to compare his own motion. It was a calming feeling the likes of which he had never experienced. He had heard of unfortunate Belters caught in eruptions of water vapor, either from ship exhaust or comet expulsion, and who had been sent tumbling at great speeds away from their fellows: some had been recovered, some not. Had they felt the same peace and calmness as Collier now did, or were they panicked as they contemplated their own deaths?

"Skipper? The Z-axis burn?"

"Coming up," Collier said, shaking himself out of his reverie. He repositioned himself on Rocinante痴 hull, gripping what he could while avoiding the exhaust vents. He would need to also fire his suit jets to keep himself from losing his grip

Damn.

"Uh, small problem, Sancho. I didn稚 think of this."

"What?"

"My suit jet controller. I need my hands to operate it, but I can稚 let go of Rocinante while she痴 thrusting.

"Shit," was Sancho痴 only reply.

Collier waited a few seconds, then said, "Sort of need an answer, there, faithful computer."

Sancho answered, "I suggest a very faint thrust on Rocinante at first, to see what you can handle. Then you can step it up slowly and feel how much you can take."

"Not bad. Let痴 give that a go. Rocinante, minus z-axis thrust, uh, one percent, continuous burn. On mark."

"Acknowledged."

"Three two one mark." The thrust was almost imperceptible. Were it not for the puff of vapor escaping through the exhaust vents, Collier could have believed nothing had happened. "Rocinante, increase thrust to five percent. Mark."

He could feel a very gentle pull away from him, but he could hold on at this level indefinitely. He continued to tell Rocinante to step up the thrust until he could feel his arms beginning to strain. He stopped increasing at seventy percent.

"Okay, Sancho, how am I doing?"

"Not even close, Skipper. You池e going to miss the asteroid, high, and when you do, you池e going to be flying by her at about thirty-four meters per second. And that値l happen in about nine and a half minutes."

"Okay. What do I need to hit the asteroid?"

"Skipper, you don稚 want to hit the asteroid. You池e going too fast."

"I値l increase minus Z-axis thrust."

"Can you hold on?"

"I guess I値l have to. Rocinante, increase minus Z-axis thrust to ninety percent. Mark."

****

The pull away from him was now considerable. The problem wasn稚 so much that Rocinante痴 thrust was too formidable as much as it was the lack of proper handholds he felt himself tightening his grip on antennae that were never intended to be used in this fashion. Idly, he wondered if anyone had ever tested the tensile strength of the objects that would mean the difference between life and death for him.

"Whoa, baby. Now you致e really got some kick to you."

"Skipper?"

"So far, so good, Sancho. How痴 about now?"

"You will still miss the asteroid, though not by as much. You池e still a bit high. And now you値l make your flyby in thirteen minutes, give or take. At twenty-two meters per second."

"I値l go to one hundred thrust. Has Rocinante got enough juice for that?"

"Yes, but"

"Rocinante, increase minus-z axis thrust to one hundred percent. Mark."

The tug increased, and he felt his left hand slip a few inches on the antenna he was gripping.

"Alert," came Rocinante痴 expressionless voice. "Fault indicator warning on high gain antenna."

"Rocinante, nature of fault?" Collier felt the agony of his position. He couldn稚 lessen his grip on the antenna, but he couldn稚 afford to have it break off, either.

"Structural failure in antenna housing. Loss of contact with antenna attitude control."

"Will it break off? Rocinante, will it break off?" he corrected himself.

"Query parameters not set."

It was useless. Rocinante was not Sancho it was only a very basic dedicated computer. There was, therefore, no way of knowing. He scanned Rocinante痴 hull. Nothing else presented itself as a handhold it was either the antenna or nothing.

"How about now, Sancho?"

"Well, you池e still not going to hit it. You池e still a little high. Not much: I give my calculation a ten percent chance of error. Due to the asteroid痴 slow spin, there may be a high enough projection that meets you right when you are flying by. In fourteen minutes, eleven seconds. But you値l pass the asteroid at nineteen point seven meters per second."

"That痴 too fast," Collier said matter-of-factly.

"Yes. I値l be on the other side to meet you, Skipper. It was a good try. You almost did it."

Collier didn稚 answer. "Rocinante, prepare for Y-axis burn."

"Skipper! You can稚 give a minus burn: you値l put yourself in the path of the asteroid. You池e going much too fast if you hit the rock at this speed, you値l be killed. Even if you somehow survive the impact, which you won稚, your suit will certainly rupture. Plus Rocinante will break up, and some of the debris might"

"Sancho, shut up for a second, would you? I know what I知 doing. I知 not going to lose this rock. Rocinante, cut Z-axis thrust. Mark." He pulled himself closer to the hull when Rocinante痴 jets stopped.

"Skipper! Don稚!"

"Rocinante, plus Y-axis thrust, ten percent, five second burn. Three two one mark."

The tug this time came from the opposite direction, as if Rocinante was an elevator ascending at a very low rate of speed. After the furious Z-axis thrust, the mild and short "upward" thrust was nothing to his muscles.

"I don稚 understand. You are absolutely going to miss the rock now. I知 glad, but I don稚"

"Rocinante, prepare for minus-Z axis thrust. One percent, increasing by one percent per second. Continuous burn."

"Ohhh, I see." Sancho said.

Collier couldn稚 help but smile a little. "Mark." Once the thrust had built back up to full power, Collier tried to keep the smugness out of his voice as he asked Sancho, "Give me an updated telemetry report, if you please, Sancho."

"Gladly, Skipper. You will begin flyby in twelve minutes, two seconds. Moving at relative velocity of twenty point six meters per second."

"How thick is the asteroid?"

"It varies, Skipper. If I understand what you are asking, the flyby should take about three and a half seconds to be complete, so I知 going to estimate the asteroid痴 奏hickness, as you put it, to be around sixty-five meters. When you clear the asteroid, you値l have a relative velocity of about eighteen meters per second, give or take a few centimeters."

"How long before I catch up with it again?"

"About four minutes, forty seconds. But you値l want to reduce velocity well before that. I estimate, in order to land at a reasonable velocity say, no more than two meters per second you値l take around ten minutes. You値l need to play a little bit to get the velocity right."

"I値l bet I can do it in eight minutes," Collier said, his breath wheezing a little as he continued to hold on to Rocinante痴 antenna.

Sancho surprised him with his answer. "You池e on."

The next five minutes were interesting: he cut back on thrust once he had checked with Sancho that Isa痴 ship was still too distant to beat him to the rock even if he reduced his velocity, fearing the damaged antenna on Rocinante痴 hull would snap off. Once Rocinante had taken him back to the asteroid and he was closing in on it, he let go of the scout and ordered her back to the Dulcinea for refueling and repair. He would use his suit jets to soften his landing there.

"Just to let you know, Skipper," Sancho said after he had released his grip on Rocinante and reversed his jets to begin a gentle braking maneuver, "your eight minutes are up. I win."

"Congratulations. I owe you a dinner. How痴 my relative velocity?"

"You池e closing at eight point seven seven meters per second. Distance ninety-one meters."

"Still a little hot for my liking," Collier mumbled. He squeezed his jet control grip and felt the pressure on his chest as the suit jets thrust broke his speed. He kept up the burn for five seconds, counting in his head, and called Sancho for an update. He didn稚 trust his eyes to give him an accurate assessment of his velocity: the asteroid痴 surface appeared to be coming at him very slowly.

"Five point one four meters per second. Distance fifty-four meters."

He nodded. That would do for now. A few more bursts from the jets once he got closer, and he壇 be there.

"I知 receiving a transmission from the Ad Astra mining ship, Skipper," Sancho said.

"Really? Put her through to me," Collier said. "Hello, Isa. I値l be with you in a minute."

"What the hell are you doing, Col? You overshot the rock and are coming back? You池e not going to beat us, not by a long shot. I don稚 know"

"Sorry, Isa, I already have. In fact" he applied a final tiny burst of thrust and extended his arms, absorbing the gentle impact of his slow-moving body on to the asteroid. "Touchdown."

"What?"

"I知 on the rock. It痴 mine." He began to unship the tethering gear from his shoulder pack.

Sancho chimed in. "Confirmed. I have you on telemetry."

"Col, I don稚 know what kind of game this is, but if you think you can fool me into thinking you致e made a claim to this asteroid without being on it, you池e crazier than even I thought."

"It痴 not a trick. I知 on the other side. Sancho, when will the rock痴 rotation carry me into view of the Ad Astra ship?"

"Won稚 be for a while, Skipper. Perhaps thirty-five minutes."

"Isa, unless you want to just trust me, you値l have to wait half an hour before you can see me. You think you can do that?"

"This is insane," Isa murmured.

"Yep. That痴 the Belt for you," he smiled and aimed the tethergun at a likely looking spot. "Sancho, I知 tethering myself now." He fired the piton and immediately drifted away from the impact. He didn稚 bother using his suit jets to compensate: the piton buried itself into the rock trailing the tether cable, which coiled oddly for a moment before the shoulder winch tightened it down. He sank gently back down toward the asteroid, tucking his legs under him so he could stand.

"Tethering successful," he said to both Isa and Sancho.

"Col, are you really on the rock? You wouldn稚 lie to me?"

Collier paused even as his feet touched the dusty surface of the asteroid. "No, I wouldn稚. I never did, Isa. That痴 why you left me, remember? Because I couldn稚 lie to you."

"Yeah," Isa said, and Collier hoped the wistfulness he heard in her voice was real and not his own invention. Then, her coldness returned. "So you池e on the rock."

"Yep. And I plan to mine it. So why don稚 you and your corp look for another one. It shouldn稚 be hard. I知 planting the claim beacon now." He opened his thigh pouch and planted the disc-shaped beacon firmly on the surface of the asteroid. When he depressed the securing stud, the beacon fired its spikes into the surface and began blinking red.

"Receiving beacon transponder," Sancho said.

"Good. Record and send to Ceres, please, Sancho." Collier grinned and said to Isa, "It痴 over, Isa. Go find another."

"You don稚 get it, Col. Nothing I致e said to you you haven稚 heard anything." She was silent a moment, then continued. "I知 going off comm for a little while. But this isn稚 over."

"Whatever you say, Isa," he grunted, then told Sancho to cut transmission, hoping to get the order in before she cut hers.

"Transmission ceased, Skipper."

"Good. Now. Where am I relative to that crevice we saw when we first decided this was our baby?"

"You池e on the proper side of the asteroid, Skipper. I make it sixty six meters distant."

"Good news indeed. All right. Prepare for orientation." He faced the tether point and held still. "Designating bearings. I am currently facing zero degrees at designated north pole. Align my suit compass and your own compass to that, please, Sancho."

"Alignment complete. Fissure beginning point located sixty-five point nine meters distant, bearing one-six-four degrees. You should see that in your helmet display."

"Got it," Collier said as he saw the tiny diamond appear in his display. He turned slowly, crouched down, and launched himself as flat as he could toward the target. There were no outcroppings ahead of him, and in any case, he was not travelling very rapidly. He kept his hands in front of him, gripping the suit jet controls, and skimmed the surface of the rock toward what he hoped were the deposits that would make this whole endeavor worthwhile.

"If there are no Ps there, I知 going to feel a bit stupid," he murmured. Then, louder, to Sancho, he said, "You didn稚 see anything down there, did you?"

"I知 afraid not, Skipper. But you wouldn稚 expect me to be able to from up here."

Collier grunted. That was true. But he would have felt a hell of a lot happier if Ps had been just lying on the surface somehow.

"You池e almost there," Sancho said a few moments later. "You should be able to see it pretty soon."

Collier used the suit jets to take him higher off the surface. He increased his headlights to maximum intensity and dispersal and suddenly saw the fissure. From his vantage point, it looked like a box canyon made of shadows: his lamps could not penetrate to the bottom.

"Contact. I知 going to set a second tether here. I値l also put a beacon down for you, Sancho. What痴 your ETA?"

"I should be hovering over your position in roughly three hours, twelve minutes."

Collier nodded inside his helmet. His suit was rated for twelve hours survival time under working conditions, and he knew from experience he could stretch that out to sixteen if he was miserly with air and water. The biggest problem with a twelve-hour suit shift was the nutrient gel. It never tasted quite right.

"Okay, Sancho. I知 going to begin preliminary excavation as soon as I am re-tethered here." He set to work, firing another piton from his shoulder and securing himself close to the fissure. Once he was safely tethered to this new point, he released the first tether, securing it to the rock with a blob of stik-tite adhesive, and began his weightless rappel down into the fissure.

He descended slowly one meter per second despite his impatience to reach the bottom. There was no sense in hurrying things now, not when he had beaten Isa to the rock. Besides, the fissure couldn稚 be more than seventy meters deep, since the asteroid itself wasn稚 that thick. He should find the bottom relatively soon.

No sooner had he thought that than his feet felt the surface of the bottom of the fissure. He bent his knees and absorbed the gentle fall, being careful not to spring back up and launch himself off the bottom.

"Okay, I知 down, Sancho."

There was no reply. He tried again, but still did not get an answer. The canyon walls, combined with the asteroid痴 gentle rotation, must be blocking his transmission. He shrugged. It was a minor annoyance, but he should have expected it. He set to work unshipping his core sampler, deploying a firefly to give him some ambient light by which to work.

Minutes later, he eyed the harpoon-like core sampler and selected a spot on the canyon wall. He set the sampler痴 anchor points and secured it to the wall. All that remained now was to press the firing stud and allow the sampler to bore deep into the rock, retrieving and analyzing samples that would tell him if all this had been worthwhile.

A single test, if negative for Ps, would not mean the rock was worthless. He could test dozens of times and still not hit veins that may be hidden elsewhere on the asteroid. He knew this intellectually, but he nevertheless hesitated on the firing button. How many tests would he perform before admitting his instincts were wrong?

He shook himself inside his suit. "Haven稚 even sampled the damn rock once, and already I知" He pressed the firing button with what amounted to defiance.

The sampler worked invisibly and soundlessly for several minutes, boring a deep shaft into the surface of the asteroid. Only when the sampler had created a shaft deep enough did a cigar-sized cylinder fire itself through the barrel of the sampler痴 long, rifle-like assembly toward what Collier hoped were the ores he sought.

Collier knew well the operation of the probe: it would scrape the sides of the shaft created by the mining laser and determine where, if anywhere, veins of rare metals and ores lay. It could, and probably would, come back with nothing on this first run, he told himself. No sense getting worked up about it.

The cylinder returned to its home in the sampler base presently and the dedicated assay computer in the sampler housing began its work. Collier watched the readout screen at the rear of the device, his breath coming quickly despite his self-talk. The dark screen brightened to life with a chemical readout. Collier gasped at the numbers. He had long ago programmed the assay computer to highlight the Ps and ignore the more common elements: Dulcinea would never be a workhorse mining vessel carrying iron ore in huge quantities. She would always be a specialist. But such a path meant many, many failures. Only when he struck a vein of Ps would any mission be worthwhile.

And so he had this time. The readout did not change even as he stared at it:

Platinum: 6.123%

Palladium: 3.237%

Total P痴: 9.36%

Rhodium: 1.788%

Iridium: 1.334%

Osmium: 1.299%

Nickel: 67.344%

Iron: 11.322%

Copper: 7.044%

Other: Trace

He had only once before broken ten Ps on a strike: that was years and years ago and had carried him for quite some time through a long dry spell. He hadn稚 quite broken ten on this sample, but nine point three plus was damn good. And that was just his first sample what if he hadn稚 even hit a vein?

The possibilities swam before him. On his first sample, a nine-three. Nine three six, really. He considered his options.

He could reset the sampler and start looking for an even richer vein, but he was out of contact down here. It would be more prudent, now that he had verified that the rock was a winner, to get back to the Dulcinea, resupply, regroup, and think about his plans. He had time.

He disassembled the sampler again and returned it to its place in his pack, then placed a second beacon on the wall of the canyon with stik-tite. Grasping the tether cable, he jumped gently off the floor of the canyon and rose back to the surface, using the cable to steady his ascent.

Once back on the surface, he hailed Sancho again.

"Sancho, my friend, open the champagne. The sampler came back nine-three-six on the first try. So the"

"Skipper! I致e been trying to raise you for the past twenty minutes!" Sancho痴 voice was tense.

"Why? What痴 happened?"

"The Ad Astra ship. She痴 been sending out blast warnings. She痴 preparing to send an impact probe. I致e tried to tell the captain that you"

"Damn her! Put me through to her. Now." Collier痴 grip on the tether cable tightened. An impact probe could easily split the asteroid in half if it struck the rock well enough: the fissure itself was evidence that the asteroid was fragile and could break in two if

Isa痴 voice sounded tense in his helmet. "Col? Where致e you been? I致e been sending out blast warnings for the last"

"Damn it, Isa, didn稚 you believe me? I知 on the goddamn rock, like I told you. Placed a claim beacon. Can稚 you see me now?"

"We saw two tethers, one of which was stuck to the rock. The other looked like it went down some kind of crevasse. But"

"Yeah, that was me. I must have been down in the canyon. It doesn稚 matter. So now you know I am here, and you can稚 legally mine this rock unless I sell the rights to you. Which I am not going to do. I知 here, I致e already begun my sampling. So fuck off," he added, feeling the pain of the past few years seep into his words.

"I知 afraid not, Col. You致e begun sampling, you say? What did you get?"

It made no sense to tell Isa what he had found. There was nothing that could be gained from revealing his findings to her. But the smug power behind his knowledge was too much for his fragile wisdom to contain. He needed her to know he had made a strike, just like he always said he would. The sting of the words in her letter was almost as fresh as it had been when he had first read them. "You池e a dreamer, Col. That might be okay for you, but I can稚 live on dreams. The Belt isn稚 a place for dreamers. And neither is our relationship. If you really loved me, you壇 put away your toys. But you池e not really a man. You池e a boy. I need a man. So long."

"Nine-three-six P," he said, clearly emphasizing each digit. "Did you hear that?" he almost shouted. It wasn稚 really a question: she hadn稚 time to respond. He knew what he sounded like, but at that moment, he didn稚 care. He let himself be petulant. "Nine-three-six! And that was just the first sample! What do you think of that, Isa? And don稚 think I知 going to take you back, either. You had your chance." Even as he spoke the last words, he knew he had gone too far. Not that he had hurt her, but that he had squandered his chance to redeem himself, even a little bit, in her eyes. He was merely being a boy some more.

Isa drew her breath. "Nine-three-six, you say," she drawled, her voice as calm as Collier痴 had been manic. "Quite a find. I was right to follow you." She was evidently ignoring his final outburst. A sarcastic comment would have been kinder than silence. "Anyway, Col," she said after an eloquent pause, "You should head on back to the Dulcinea soon. We値l be ready to launch our probes pretty soon. I知 going to crack this rock open and mine her dry."

"You can稚, Isa," he repeated, keeping his voice calmer. "Belt law clearly gives me right of first. There痴 nothing subtle about it."

"And what are you going to do about it, Col?" Isa痴 voice was dangerously smooth and soft. "Run to the Authority? Please don稚 tell me your childish idealism has gone that far," she chuckled cruelly.

"The claim beacon," Collier said, "is planted. It痴 sending data to my ship and I知 sending it to Ceres."

Isa sounded almost sorry. "No, it痴 not. We池e jamming your transmission."

"Sancho!" Collier snapped.

"I can稚 confirm that yet, Skipper. Haven稚 received verification of reception from Ceres, but that could be from slowness on their part."

Isa continued. "It痴 going to come down to our word against yours. And the corporation has a loud voice."

Collier swallowed. Isa was right: if she decided to flout the law, the worst the Authority could really do was slap a fine on the Ad Astra Corporation. And even that was unlikely. He had no money to defend a claim, besides his ship. If he lost the claim (which, despite the circumstances, was quite possible given the skill and resources available to the Ad Astra痴 lawyers) he would lose his legal deposit. He couldn稚 afford to lose. Therefore, he couldn稚 afford to fight.

"Why, Isa?" His voice carried all the meaning he needed to convey.

She sighed. "Don稚 make this more than it is, Col. I知 a captain in the Ad Astra Corporation. It痴 what I do."

"And what if I stay here and mine? Would you kill me, Isa?"

"Jesus, Col, do we have to make this so dramatic? No, of course not. I値l still fire the impact probe, maybe it値l crack the rock open, maybe not, but the concussion will disrupt anything you致e put down. Might even damage or destroy your equipment. Then what? You won稚 be able to mine, even if you wanted to."

Collier痴 fingers flexed in his suit. He knew she was right: she could probably place the impact probe close enough to him to shake him off the rock but far enough away not to hurt him. And she had plenty of probes to waste if the first one didn稚 do the trick. Now that she knew the asteroid was a nine-six-three, she could afford to be liberal in her attempts to shake him off.

"I need water," he said, lamely.

Isa voice indicated she saw through the ruse immediately. "I知 sure you do, after your idiotic stunt. I think I can spare a few cubic meters of ice so you don稚 need to sleep your way back to Ceres."

"This isn稚 right, Isa. You know it痴 not."

"There痴 no such thing as right and wrong out here, Col. Just what a girl can grab."

"Grab and hold onto, you mean," he amended.

"As you say. Grab and hold onto. You were never good at holding onto things, were you, Col?"

Collier turned his eyes toward the stars. He wasn稚 looking for Isa痴 ship, since it was far too distant still to be made out by eye, but was imagining her as she was during those promise-filled months. He could see her long face as she held it in her cupped palm, her elbow denting the mattress. In his mind, she was smiling slightly not a smile of occasion because of something in particular he had said or done, but a smile of circumstance. But then again, perhaps what he saw was not a memory but a creation of his own brain. Had she really ever been happy with him?

"I guess not. So I値l go back to the Dulcinea and you値l arrange for an ice transfer?"

"Yes. So that痴 it, then? You池e leaving the rock?"

Collier痴 head snapped back to the horizon. "Isn稚 that what you want?"

"Of course. I just didn稚 you池e being reasonable about it." Isa sounded surprised and even a little disappointed.

"What choice do I have? If I stay, you値l wreck any mining equipment I use. I won稚 see a gram of P from this rock, and I値l have to try to replace my tools. What do you want me to do, Isa? Throw sand at you when you hover over me? Spit at your impact probe? You致e got me by the balls, Isa, and I know when it痴 time to cut my losses. So just send over the damn ice, without any of your gloating."

"You were never reasonable," Isa said evenly. "That was the whole problem. Are you saying you池e coming around to"

"Damn you, Isa. You can稚 just win, can you? Just like you couldn稚 just leave me. You had to follow me. And now, now that you are going to take right out from under me the biggest strike I致e had in years, you can稚 just do it. You have to talk to me about it. Well, how痴 this for talk: you池e nothing but a corporate whore, Isa. You might have had a heart at one time, may have been your own person. But now you池e nothing but another Ad Astra whore, doing what they tell you, hoping the suits will see fit to send some money your way. I知 glad you left. Sancho, cease receiving from that damn ship."

His radio went dead.


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