013 – Helioset

The shuttle stopped at a mining settlement first. Ships darted like flies in and around a massive ECO, which trailed a dust of particles that glowed in the sunlight’s reflection. The dust hit a grid of collection shields the size of football fields.

A station orbited the ECO, and the shuttle docked there to allow passengers to disembark. The Hexers and the man who had asked to rent her filed out with a small trickle of passengers. Zee carefully kept her eyes down as they passed.

Engines rumbling, the shuttle pulled away from the station. Zee glimpsed Terrace Tower, which rose from the Earth like a needle in the distance, its wide base lost in the glowing haze of atmosphere. But Helioset, a great skeletal metal sphere the size of a small moon, rose in front their view of Earth. Fields of metal covered quadrants of it, but others opened to space, revealing a dark interior that glittered with lights and movement. The sphere rotated slowly.

Zee gulped at the size of it. “That’s not what I expected,” she said, her voice a whisper, eyes wide.

“If you think this is big,” said Rice, “wait until you see the Tower Anchors.”

Zee shook her head. “I know Helioset is the smallest Dyson-Ferrar Sphere in existence,” she said, “but I never understood what that meant. It’s hard to imagine humans building something so huge.” The cockpit window pointed down, and the engines roared, the vibration shaking their seats. Helioset disappeared above their heads. Zee gasped as the Earth filled the view of the window. “Pretty,” Zee said, voice low with awe. Stark white clouds speckled like fish scales over the blue of an ocean.

“It’s hard to imagine you’ve been operating for over one hundred years and you’ve never been to space,” said Rice, raising an eyebrow at her. Zee shrugged and drew her gaze away from the window. Moments later, the window view rose again and Earth disappeared. Helioset appeared large in the window as they neared an opening in the earthward pole.

They entered the sphere. The interior of the ship darkened as Helioset’s structure blocked the Earth’s reflection. Twinkling lights glittered in the darkness of the immense space. In the center of the hollow sphere, two crater-pocked ECOs rotated slowly. Large cranes spiked out from the surface of the asteroids.

Other larger ships passed on either side of the shuttle as they neared the docking station. After a few minutes of maneuvering and consulting the docking operators, the pilots let the computer land the ship in a small compartment on the side of a more remote part of the docking complex.

Shuddering as it was locked in place, the shuttle cabin hissed as the pressure equalized to the docking station. Ben and Rice unbuckled their harnesses and grabbed packs from storage lockers. Zee quickly followed their lead.

They disembarked to a wide terminal with secured exits. Ben, still looking pale, clutched a vacuum bag. Rice floated enthusiastically off the shuttle. “Thank the stars that’s over,” she said. Zee gripped the railing tightly, every movement throwing her off balance. People floated in the zero gravity, using handholds to move along the terminal with varied levels of grace. An attendant greeted them.

“Welcome to Helioset,” she said with a friendly smile, expertly balancing in front of them. Bright blue hair contrasted to a conservative uniform, a white button down blouse and dark pants. Zee’s eyes flitted to the tab embedded in the woman’s arm, denoting her as an analog. “My name is Cyntha,” said the attendant. “I’ll be your guide here on Helioset. Captain of the Watch, Sheldon Baker, will meet you in the maintenance hangar on level seven after you pass the security check. I’ll take your work order and documentation for processing at this time.”

“I spoke with Captain Davis Shea about the maintenance job,” said Zee, “not Captain Baker.”

“Mr. Shea was recently demoted and replaced by Captain Baker,” said Cyntha, still smiling politely. “Your documentation, please?”

Rice, Ben, and Zee held out their hands. A 3DES marked each of their pointer fingers, and Cyntha passed her tab over them. She nodded. “You can wait in the arrivals’ lounge,” she said, waving her hand to a small lounge area between exits. A few people waited there, floating lazily or sipping sealed bags of coffee and tea through one way straws. The young attendant turned and headed for a small console in an alcove, leaving them.

“Sheldon Baker?” Rice said, her voice low. “Does she mean Baker the Butcher, the war hero?” She twisted her lips like she’d tasted something sour.

“I’ve heard of him,” said Zee, eyebrows peaking in worry.

“They won’t try to renegotiate the job, will they?” asked Rice.

“As long as they don’t try to renegotiate the pay,” said Ben, then he paled again and clamped his mouth shut. Rice rolled her eyes.

“I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about,” said Zee, forcefully smoothing the expression on her face. “I signed a contract.”

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012 – Rusted Night

Zee immediately unbuckled her harness and straightened her skirt, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks. Too busy puking, Rice hardly noticed, but Zee glanced at Ben and noticed he studiously avoided looking at her, a flush rising from his collar. She blinked and jerked her gaze away, her muscles tensing. She stared at her hands clutched in her lap until she felt his attention diminish. But then a shadow fell over their row. Zee continued staring at her hands as she heard Ben clear his throat.

“Can I help you?” he asked the caster of the shadow. No answer followed, and Zee glanced up, curious.

A man stood over them. Hex panels covered his chest, fists, and feet, the heavy panels separate, not assisted by the pneumatics of a complete Hex system. The man stared at her, and Zee gulped at the glint in his eyes. “That’s an analog,” he said, nodding at her. The rush of anger dizzied her and tied her tongue. She stared at the man, feeling tears gather at the corner of her eyes.

When no one denied the accusation, the man continued speaking, “I’ll pay you one thousand credits to lease it for an hour.” The man’s boldness had attracted the attention of the other passengers. Some leaned over in their seats to get a better view, others looked away in disgust. Zee felt heat rise on her face and cold fear descend in her stomach. Her lease agreement did not prohibit sublets.

Next to her, she felt Ben tense, but Rice appeared over him. Rice wiped a chunk of puke from her lip and pressed a hand to Ben’s shoulder as she stumbled and climbed over both their knees and stood in front of the rude man. He stared at her, brow wrinkled in confusion, and she stared at him a moment before barfing all over him and his Hex panels. The man stepped back, wrinkling his nose.

Gasping between barfs, Rice said, “Why are you blocking my way to the toilet?” The man grimaced and shuffled out of the way. Rice stumbled for the head, and the man tried to wipe puke off himself as he moved back to his seat and pulled a towel from a storage locker.

Zee clutched her own trembling hands and glanced at Ben. His eyes had followed the rude man back to his seat and settled on the man’s back. He blinked and noticed her gaze, his expression softened. “Sorry,” he said in a low voice.

“For what?” Zee said, looking away. For the man’s rudeness? That wasn’t Ben’s fault. For the fact that she was an analog? Ridiculous. For treating her like a human, so she felt like a human? So when a man called her an analog and asked to rent her for an hour, she felt angry and ashamed? Zee gritted her teeth and blinked away tears to avoid smudging her makeup. She turned her head so he wouldn’t see.

With Rice still barfing in the head, she could look out the small cabin window, barely bigger than her hand and reinforced with layers of thick plastic. In the small view, she could see Terrace Tower as it rose from the Earth like a needle in the distance, it’s wide base lost in a glowing haze. Ahead of the ship, the ITG hovered in the distance, barely visible in the night sky except for navigation lights and the lights of ships that queued there.

Rice stumbled back to their row, climbed over Ben and Zee, and plunked into her seat. She groaned. “I think I puked up everything I possibly could,” she said. “Why, oh why don’t they just have Gates on Earth?”

“Because the change in velocity would probably kill us,” said Zee. “And in space, there’s a lot more room for error. The solid objects are fewer and farther between.”

Rice groaned. “I know that,” she said.

“Then why ask?” said Zee.

“It was rhetorical,” Rice said. She spat into her bag. The next handful of hours passed relatively quietly. Ben and Rice took turns being sick, and then fell asleep, exhausted from expelling the contents of their stomachs.

Zee reviewed her notes and the papers for their job on Helioset, Hexsuit maintenance. No one bothered them, but Zee couldn’t keep the tremble out of her hand as the rude man passed their seats to use the toilet. She kept her eyes glued to her notes, and tried not to remember sublets she’d experienced in the past. She only looked up when they had reached low earth orbit. The ship had been matching the Gate’s speed and now it approached at a relative crawl.

The pilot’s voice crackled over the public comm. “Looks like we’ve got a queue at the ITG,” he said. “But shouldn’t be a wait of more than a handful of minutes, and then we’ll spend a blip in the Broudian. After that we’ll have a short burn and adjustment before we reach Helioset in GEO.”

“A blip?” asked Ben.

“You’ll hardly notice it,” said Rice. Ben groaned. He turned to Zee. “We did maintenance on a Gate once. But we just replaced a few components. Spacewalk was cool.”

“I thought it was terrifying,” said Rice. “I’ll take a jungle in the Wilds over the dead of space any day.”

After waiting a few minutes in the queue, watching the shuttles ahead of them enter the ITG and then disappear, they reached the next in line to enter the Gate. On either side of her, Rice and Ben readied their puke bags. The pilots spoke to the Gate operators, their voices a low murmur on the public comm. The inside of the ring glowed briefly, illuminating the inside of the ship. Zee squinted as it got brighter and brighter. In the next moment, Zee felt the very atoms in her being tremble, and seem to flatten. Dizziness and disorientation scrambled in her brain. Then the light died. Zee gasped in relief.

Rice and Ben vomited into their bags at the same time. Rice leaned back. “Holy shit, that was horrible.”

“Welcome to geosynchronous earth orbit,” the pilot said over the public comm, his voice barely audible as the engines roared. “Home of the Tower Anchors, Moon Gate, Titan and Europa Gates, Carilon Space Dump, the Highest Museum, the Mining Settlement Belt, and Helioset of course. Prepare for burn.”

Read Chapter 13 – Helioset next.

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011 – Rusted Flight

Rice closed the hatch behind them. The rusting metal and plastic of the shuttle’s interior vibrated as the turbines and magnets hummed to life. They made their way down a few levels on the huge, spherical ship. Squaring her shoulders, Zee avoided the collective gazes of a group of Hexers they passed. She clutched her wrist and the built-in tab that marked her as an Analog. “I’ve already loaded our gear,” Rice said. They hurried to their seats.

Pausing, Zee stared at the five-point harness on her seat. Rice shuffled by her, taking the seat on one end of the row, nearest the tiny window. Gritting her teeth, Zee sat quickly and Ben sat on her other side. She struggled with the harness, pulling her skirt up on her thighs to buckle the harness belt between her legs. Blushing furiously, she placed her hands in her lap and avoided looking at either Rice or Ben.

The engines roared, drowning out all sound. Zee stared ahead, still avoiding looking at either of them as Rice handed her an ear band. After sliding it over her head and into her ears, Zee turned it to the correct frequency and stared at her bare knees.

“Pilot says we’re about ready for lift,” Ben said over the comm channel. “Are we go?”

“Yeah,” Rice said.

“Yes,” said Zee, but she couldn’t keep the tremble from her voice. She gripped the armrests.

Ben paused. She looked up at him and his gray eyes were unreadable. He flipped his comm to her private channel. “Takeoff’s bumpy,” he said. “Breathe or you’ll pass out, okay?” She nodded minutely, eyes wide. Ben switched channels and spoke to the pilot. The roar of the engines built, and the ship shuddered and moved, hovering over the landing pad. Zee’s ears popped as the cabin pressurized.

“Five beers on Ben barfing first,” Rice said, grinning and leaning back in her seat.

“You’ll pop first,” Ben said.

“What do you want if I do?” asked Rice, humor in her voice.

Ben paused. “Write the job report,” he said.

Rice rolled her eyes. “Deal.”

The ship shuddered again. Magnets locked in place and turbines whined loudly. The ship shot into the air. Zee screamed at the force of it, and the passengers were flung back into their seats. She struggled to breath like Ben had told her, but the acceleration seemed to be pressing against her chest and throat. Five minutes later, blackness began to creep into her field of vision.

The shuttle vibrated and shook. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, struggling against the invisible force of gravity intensified by acceleration. Just when she thought she couldn’t take it anymore, the acceleration decreased. Zee gasped, her vision returning to normal.

Next to her, Rice groaned. “Congratulations, Zee,” she said. “You survived your first five minutes at five Gs.” She turned and barfed into a bag.

“Ha,” Ben said, his voice weak. “I win the bet.” He sat forward abruptly and reached for a bag in the seat pocket in front of him. He opened it with fumbling fingers and puked into the bag. Zee grimaced. A moment later, he spat and pulled the bag from his face. “Hate shuttles,” he said. He turned to Zee, his eyes watery and skin gray. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” said Zee. “I almost passed out, but I feel okay now.” The acceleration decreased further, and the roar of the engines decreased, becoming a low hum outside the spherical shuttle. “Settle in,” she said. “We’ve got a six-hour flight to the Pacific Gate.”

“Shit,” groaned Rice. “If having a business liaison doesn’t mean we rank the America’s Gate, what’s the point?”

Zee turned a level gaze towards her. Rice’s skin had paled, and she clutched a puke bag in her fist. Zee raised an eyebrow. “Please remember you work for a maintenance company,” she said. “Simply leasing a business liaison will open doors, but not Gates. You would not have obtained this Helioset job without me. You would not have obtained the Kola—”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Rice, waving a hand.

The public comm crackled over the low roar of the engines. “We’ve reached our cruising altitude,” said one of the shuttle pilots. “You are now free to release your harnesses.”

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010 – Analog Dreams

She was drowning.

But she didn’t panic despite realizing that air had been replaced with water. She had been here many times before, and she instinctively held her breath.

The water’s cold caress raised goosebumps on her naked skin. She reflexively curled her legs and wrapped her arms around her chest at the realization of her nudity, but her limbs felt heavy. She opened her eyes to thick darkness. It wasn’t just murk, but total absence of light.

She stretched her hand out a few inches from her body. Her fingers touched a smooth, cool surface, like glass. Tracing her fingers along the surface, she discovered it came to a rounded point above her head. She released a small spurt of stale air out between her lips.

With more urgency, she pushed her fingers down along the surface, bending her knees and reaching below her feet. She could find no seam or break in the material, which rounded to an end again as it had above her head.

Straightening, she placed both her hands against the surface in front of her face. She braced her back against the surface behind her, shivering at the feeling of cold glass against her skin. She pushed against the glass tube. But it’s solidity did not give way. She kicked at the sides of the tube, her prison, with bare feet and knees. Agonizing pressure in her lungs increased, and the air began escaping from her lips in bursts and bubbles.

She knew in the next breath she would breathe water. Zee smashed her fists against the tube.

 

 

Inside the darkened locker—apartment—Zee jerked awake. She paused, leaning wearily against the straps that held her naked body vertically in the small space, and tried to shake off the drowning dream and discern what had awakened her. A tinny knock sounded against the locker’s—apartment’s—door.

“Wh-who’s there?” Zee called, fumbling for the light.

“It’s Ben.” His muffled voice came through the door. “The shuttle is here and I just wanted to find out if you were still going—”

“Shit,” Zee said. Her hand passed in front of the light panel and LEDs illuminated the interior of her locker—apartment—and released her sleeping straps in the same moment. “Just one minute,” she called to him, silently cursing her faulty alarm clock. She fumbled for another panel and pulled it aside to reveal an array of suits, cleaned and pressed and far more ready for the day than she was. She quickly slipped on undergarments and a white blouse, chose the gray pencil skirt and a matching jacket.

The panel to her right shimmered to reveal her reflection. She expertly pulled her unruly black hair into a simple, if severe, ponytail and checked her teeth and the creases on her jacket. Nothing could be out of place, as stated in her lease agreement. She applied her makeup mask, using the mirror to correctly align it, and a moment later it dissolved over her face, leaving the appropriate amount of powder and paint to her eyes and lips. Checking the results in the mirror and sliding the frames of her glasses over her ears, she nodded.

She grabbed a compact bag, which she had thankfully packed yesterday, and pushing up a corner of her sleeve, she tapped the flexible tab screen built into her arm and the door panel of her locker—apartment—slid open. Zee blinked in the brighter light of the Standard Maintenance warehouse. Ben stepped back as her door opened. He wore a dark gray Standard Maintenance jumpsuit, the logo in orange lettering. The fading bruises on his face hardly looked professional.

He shuffled his feet, and then stood there, silently staring at her. After a moment, his eyes slid away from hers and he scratched an eyebrow. “Good morni—”

“I thought we were late,” Zee said.

Something flashed in his eyes, but he turned before she could understand it. He headed for the elevator to the roof. She followed him, and they loaded into the elevator. They rode it to the roof in a heavy silence. It stuttered to a stop and the door slid open. A short, bare hallway led to the roof.

Outside, a glowing mass of neon signs and billboards fought the descent of darkness. From the roof of Standard Maintenance, they could see the partially submerged glory of Rust’s Downtown district to the west, and north up the Elliot Isthmus to Governor’s Hill, which shone the brightest of all. To the east, the city climbed vertically with a raucous swirl of colors, handily blocking the view of the eastern Wilds.

The massive shuttle hovered on the landing pad in the center of the roof. It had no wings, but its spherical body held clusters of magnets and turbines, their power a low hum over the sound of the city. Arrays of stabilizing vents hissed and clicked. Rice stood outside the hatch, arms crossed, tapping her foot impatiently.

Her dark eyes flashed over Zee as she and Ben approached. Rice’s slim eyebrow raised. “That’s a bold move,” she said in a low voice as Zee passed her near the shuttle hatch.

Zee paused. “What?”

Rice’s lips tugged up to a grin. “Wearing a skirt in Zero-G,” she said. “Very bold,” her nose wrinkled.

Zee blinked and a sigh hissed out between her teeth. “Do I have time to change?” she asked, keeping her tone and expression even.

“Nope,” said Rice, eyes glinting.

Zee’s jaw tightened. “Fine,” she said. She stepped into the shuttle. “I can handle it.” She could handle anything. It was in her lease agreement.

If you like what you’ve read, you can make a one time donation through PayPal or support me at Patreon. Your patronage gets you additional scenes, sketches, drafts, and notes. Your support will allow me to keep writing. Read Chapter 11 next.

009 – Cloud Shield

The tungsten carbide flexed and burned like a muscle. Ben’s brain tracked the dispersed cloud of particles only because he knew them, had lived his entire life with them. They were a part of his body, but the effort burst blood vessels. Red liquid dripped down his nose and out the corner of his eye.

His mind had more difficulty tracking the blur of Ivan’s fist as it smashed toward his face, coated in titanium. The other bruises stung on his abdomen, on his forearms, the memory of impact recent and brutal.

Ben’s jaw tightened. Lips spreading, he bared his teeth and the tungsten carbide clenched to solidity. Ivan howled when his fist struck it midway through his punch. Ben dissolved the shield the moment the momentum of Ivan’s fist was spent, the effort making him grunt.

Ivan’s smile widened and he pummeled Ben with titanium fists, each strike mired in tungsten carbide that materialized around Ivan’s fist a moment before it hit Ben. “Better,” the tall man said, eyes wild, his voice carrying to Ben over the roar of the crowd. “Much better.”

“But not enough.” Roaring, Ivan swept Ben’s leg, flipping him onto his back in the sand. Ben glimpsed the ceiling of the Arena moments before a titanium coated heel smashed down onto his sternum. Spittle and blood exploded from his mouth.

Ivan stepped back and pumped his fists into the air. A wave of noise, thousands of voices roared in response. Ben couldn’t breath and darkness swept in from his peripheral vision.

 

 

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” Rice said to Madame Harmon. They stood over Ben’s unconscious body, which lay between them on the examination table. The Madame, clad in a silvery, elegant dress, eyelashes decorated with laminated butterfly wings, looked at Rice. Rice crossed her arms and continued, her gaze on Ben’s unconscious face. “He can’t fight. He looks pathetic out there. The mob is starting to get bored. Ivan’s going to kill him—”

“What’s your point?” Harmon asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Cut him loose,” said Rice. “Find someone else.”

“We’ve already obtained other nanoblade users because of his participation,” said Harmon, her elegant lips curling in a smile. “They have only agreed to play because they want to fight him.” Rice rolled her eyes. “Ivan knows this and will refrain from killing him.”

“It’s ridiculous,” said Rice, frowning.

Harmon shrugged her elegant shoulders. “As long as he’s making money, and I’m making money, why don’t you make some as well?”

Rice’s gaze slid to Harmon’s emerald eyes. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?”

“Why not?” said Harmon.

Rice turned to face the woman fully. “I will never, ever fight in your games,” she said, her voice quiet and serious, eyes steady. “I can’t stop Ben from doing this, but—”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Harmon, leaning forward towards Rice.

Rice blinked, her brow clenching. “Then what?—”

“I’ll pay you to train him,” she said.

Rice’s lips parted to speak, paused, then continued. “What makes you think I’m qualified to do that?”

Harmon waved an elegant hand gloved in jewels. “Please,” she said with a roll of her eyes. “If I know what happened in Burmata, don’t you think I know about your work for the Barter—”

Rice made a choking sound and waved her hands. “I got it, I got it.” Harmon fell silent, a slight smile curling her lips, and Rice glared at her. Twisting her lips Rice said, “You’re resorting to blackmail?”

“Well, not necessarily. Let’s just say if he wins, you’ll win,” said Harmon. Rice’s eyes narrowed, and she remained silent. The moments passed as she and Harmon considered each other. Ben groaned, interrupting the silence. “Think about it and get back to me,” Harmon said. She turned and left the room, closing the door behind her.

Ben’s eyes fluttered open. He groaned and touched his chest, which had turned an unpleasant blue and purple color. He withdrew his hand quickly. “Shiiiit,” he moaned.

“Cracked sternum,” said Rice, dragging her gaze away from the door through which Harmon had left. “I used a Hex frame under your skin to reinforce it for the time being. You should be okay on the shuttle tomorrow, but you’re going to feel it, probably through the deadening.”

“I can feel it now,” said Ben.

“At least he didn’t turn your face into a punching bag this time.”

“I feel so lucky,” Ben said, his voice faint.

“You should,” said Rice. “You’re ugly enough as it is.”

“Your bedside manner could use some work,” Ben said. He sat up with a wince and took the shirt she handed him.

Rice raised an eyebrow. “Sort of like your fighting skills? He was playing with you out there.”

“Well, it turns out survival skills and fighting skills aren’t the same thing,” Ben said. He considered the shirt he would have to pull over his head to put on. With a wince, he set it aside and reached for his jacket.

As she helped him with the sleeves, Rice said in a casual tone, “What if I helped you?”

“They’re one on one fights, Rice,” Ben said.

Rice rolled her eyes. “I mean give you a few tips, spar with you a bit. You know, practice.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged. “You’ll kick my ass,” he said.

Rice grinned. “Yeah, but then maybe Ivan won’t.”

If you like what you’ve read, you can make a one time donation through PayPal or support me at Patreon. Your patronage gets you additional scenes, sketches, drafts, and notes. Your support will allow me to keep writing. Read Chapter 10 next.