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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