The big asteroids were where things happened.
Crosne wasn’t one of them. The rock’s official designation was an ancient warrior no one cared about from an ancient war that didn’t matter followed by a number no one remembered. Crosne is what folks actually called it. Some kinda fruit. Probably extinct.
It looked like any of a thousand other rocks in the Autonomous Zone: a melange of polycrete, endurium, and garish advertising that filled up old mines with a cheap approximation of sunside civilization. The illusion just about worked if you’d never been sunside and didn’t notice the asteroid dust in every corner.
Zora Soltani wandered down the main thoroughfare from the port. Little MultiBots repurposed into their third or fourth jobs bustled around on their way to work too dangerous, too repetitive, or too menial (but mostly too expensive) for humans. She’d never been to Crosne before. Or anywhere else in the Trojans. Zora’s whole career was something like a billion kilometers away in the batch of asteroids caught up in the Lagrange point ahead of Jupiter’s orbit, the Greeks.
About the only thing remotely remarkable about Crosne was how unremarkable and remote it was. Why it was originally marked for habitation remained a mystery. A dare? A gambit to extend one corp’s mining rights? Or to confound a property dispute? Maybe someone’s finger slipped on the Small Body Survey of 2303. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss it rock tumbling through infinity a little too far from every beaten path for anyone to get there by accident. There was, at least, the Chef O’Matic food processing plant that no one could consider enticing enough to visit on purpose.
The executive board of Chef O’Matic (an Aurora Syndicate subsidiary) voted unanimously to establish their cannery on Crosne after an internal cost analysis report showed the considerable and ongoing expense of maintaining a facility so far from prying eyes would cost less than either (1) research, development, and implementation of new production methods to make their nutritional paste seem a little less like canned cat food, or (2) the aggressive and long term Zone-wide propaganda campaign required to convince a significant portion of the public that cat food was good for you anyway.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Consequently, Crosne was the kind of place no one wanted to be. And that made it exactly where you’d go to do some crimes no one would witness.
And that was why, everywhere Zora looked, she saw people obviously trying to lay low without looking like they were trying to lay low.
Zora among them.
Her strategy was to look like she meant business without getting into specifics. She kept her hair short so it couldn’t bug her in zero-g. She dyed it silver because that was the style three years ago, but she never kept up with the chromatics so it was more of a gray-ish white that she insisted was still silver. She wore an old, fading, reddish brown flight jacket from a brand of plasma injector that went defunct ten years ago, this week’s shirt (possibly inside-out come to think of it), a pair of pants old enough to rent their own ship, and work boots that could break the toes of anyone not wearing work boots. And if they were then she’d go for a knee. She kept a holster about half way down her right thigh. Low enough to be out of the way but high enough to reach in a hurry. It contained an old fashioned gun, a DNK Model-44 Rattlesnake, from back when they had to be big, nasty things to offset heat buildup. To a modern eye it looked like a hand cannon and made most folks think about what they could do to keep it holstered. Zora called it her negotiator.
And here she was, in the middle of nowhere on the wrong side of Jupiter, with three hours to kill as per her simple if unusual instructions.
She promised herself she wouldn’t spend them in the first bar she found.
~ ~ ~
Zora ordered a whiskey in the second bar she found. It was a little too dark and a little too loud. A permanent haze of smoke clung to the ceiling just like damn near every bar she’d ever seen in the Zone. Vigarette smoke. Many a long hauler and a fair number of Troubleshooters swore by the stuff but Zora never touched it. She had koffee to keep her awake and whiskey to keep her sane.
The place was half empty but bars this far out from a real colony were always half empty. Every clock in the Zone ran on Earth time, Mumbai specifically, for reasons that must’ve been incredibly important whenever that decision was made. But everyone in the Zone ran on their own internal clock and with the sun 800-ish million kilometers away there would never be enough daylight for the dregs to simultaneously agree on when it was time to go home.
She’d been a Troubleshooter long enough to know something wasn’t right about this job the moment she saw those two managerial goons walking up in the port.
She’d done corporate work before. Hell, probably two-thirds of her jobs would lead back to a boardroom if anyone could follow the twisting labyrinth of ghost corps and shell companies specifically set up to hire her without revealing which boardroom was calling the shots.
This was different.
No cutouts. Just two executive level ghouls with faces as clean and sharp as knives and suits to match. They actually greeted her in person at the port.
The mere sight of them made her suspicious enough to silently insist they reconsider any movement she might find objectionable by holding a hand over her negotiator.
And they had the right passcode and the right cargo in a nearby loadskimmer — twenty identical and unmarked armored cases about the size of ordinary luggage that was full of None of Zora’s Business.
Of course, the port was set to half standard gravity so they didn’t even mess their absurd laser precise executive haircuts by lugging all twenty cases into the cargo hold of her ship themselves. Zora was stunned. She wasn’t convinced execs zipped up their own pants and here they were exerting themselves.
Zora double checked their work. There were enough surprises out among the rocks without adding loose cargo or secret homing beacons to the list. She tugged on straps and surreptitiously scanned for any signals that should not be coming out of her new cargo. Everything was secure and silent but a little paranoia went far in this business.
They handed Zora a payment card. Black and featureless. No serial number, no logo, nothing but data. She searched a couple pockets before finding her compad twisted up in the wrong one. It was an old Amico they didn’t even make anymore. Bulky and sluggish by modern standards but Zora didn’t need anything more than a basic exonet connection to get by. She swiped the card and a second later her account boasted a frankly astonishing amount of standard electronic dollars, “stellars.” The suits gave Zora instructions for the other half but she didn’t hear a word of it. Her attention was consumed by the contents of her account — quite literally the most money she ever had to her name at one time. Didn’t matter anyway. The details were already arranged and she had no trouble remembering them: wait three hours on Crosne before heading out for Old Mahogany; make the call at such-and-such time; exchange code phrases; establish drop point; deliver the cases; get yet another absurdly high payment; wipe out all her debts; never look back.
“The hell am I supposed to do for three hours?” she asked as they climbed into their empty loadskimmer.
“See the sights,” one of them said with a disinterested shrug before the skimmer took them out of her life forever.
Well. What choice did she have?
Zora locked her ship and affixed the docking clamp. Everything was biometrically keyed to the pattern of her irises, cross referenced with the sound of her heartbeat, and verified by a map of the veins in her neck. She would have to be alive, awake, and not panicking to get into her ship without raising an alarm. The number of hijackings and daring getaways had dropped precipitously since the Aurora Syndicate mandated these security measures across the Zone.
Zora couldn’t abide the former but the latter directly affected her line of work. Every year the civilizing influence of the Aurora Syndicate spread further and further from Jupiter. And every year it was that much harder than the last to cause trouble and get away with it.
The hell were a couple corporate stooges doing in a Trojan backwater like Crosne? And without assistants to do their heavy lifting? Or interns to do their driving? She’d never known a corporate vampire to go anywhere without their entourage.
Zora reminded herself Troubleshooters weren’t paid to ask questions and sipped her drink. Anyway. What did she care? This was her last job.
Something else was bothering her. Something at the edge of her mind that wouldn’t quite come into focus. Was it something they said? No, they hardly spoke. Something about their appearance? No, corporate types all looked like they emerged fully grown from the same vat of incredibly expensive amniotic champagne. That wasn’t it.
Her eyes narrowed. The hell was it then?
The four empty glasses on the bar in front of her offered no help.
She rummaged in one pocket. Then another and another. Her damn Amico was always twisted up in the wrong one. There! She flipped the sturdy clamshell open and the screen winked to life with pleasing chimes that cost half a billion stellars of marketing research to compose. There, in big bright numbers, was the time.
Two hours and six minutes had already passed!
One of the things Zora noticed about life was how plans very rarely went as planned.
Dozens of notifications had piled up since she last checked the damn thing: ads selling their brands of reality, newscasts selling another, and mail she couldn’t be bothered to open much less read. Partly out of professional necessity, but mostly for her own mental health, Zora had long ago perfected a technique for maintaining a neat and orderly inbox: she deleted everything marked NEW starting from the top. Fuck ‘em.
“Beat it, kid,” the bartender croaked. No one had a great complexion this far out, but the bartender looked like he hadn’t even heard of the sun. And he was hairless. Zora couldn’t figure if it was alopecia or some kinda fetish she didn’t know the name for.
A kid had taken the stool next to Zora at the bar. She missed it happening during her Inbox Zero mania. Teen of some kind. Her hair was shaved on one side and shoulder length on the other. It was done up with a spectrum job that went from a pastel pink to an intense ultrared according to length. She was swimming in a pair of mechanic’s coveralls that were two sizes too big for her and too clean to actually fool anyone into thinking she was any kind of mechanic.
“I’m with her,” the kid said, indicating Zora with a grumpy nod.
Zora said nothing. Any sort of acknowledgement would only bring her closer to hearing the kid’s practiced sob story she was obviously itching to deliver.
The bartender looked at Zora. Then the kid. Then at Zora’s empty glasses. She could see math working its way across his unlined, unhaired face.
He cleared away Zora’s four empty glasses and pointed at the fifth one, half empty, still in her hand.
“Your last,” he said and moved on.
“Gee, thanks, kid,” Zora said.
“You gotta get me outta here,” the kid said in a low, conspiratorial tone, watching the barkeeper like a hawk to make sure he wasn’t eavesdropping.
That wasn’t how Zora expected this to start. But she had to admit the quaver in the kid’s voice was a nice touch. Real genuine.
“Sure. Go back the way you came,” Zora said, nodding toward the exit.
“I mean off this rock!” the kid said. It was meant to be a whisper but came out in a hiss. Well, that was bad form. But at least this was different. The usual story went something like:
Oh, my parents died in a tragic mining catastrophe, and I had to sell my meager belongings to book passage on a transport to reach my uncle’s hab to take up an apprenticeship shoveling radioactive waste into an unprotected blast furnace, but the captain dumped me here and took off with all my meager belongings even though I said I sold them earlier, but you didn’t even notice because it’s all so very sad, plus I haven’t eaten in days, if only you could spare a few stellars to blah blah blah.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” Zora said. She thumbed at her Amico and deleted another batch of unread mail. If it was important, they’d send someone — and good luck if they did.
The kid closed her eyes. Shook her head. “You’re the one who says, ‘yes.’”
Zora stifled a laugh. “Oh, yeah? Why’s that?” The novelty of this kid’s approach was a welcome change of pace from the usual sad sack orphan routine but like hell Zora was about to fall for it.
“I don’t know,” the kid muttered. She opened her eyes again. Red like she hadn’t slept in days. “Maybe I’m offering double your rate.”
“You don’t know my rate.”
“I’m doubling whatever you say it is,” the kid said. She was actually getting impatient!
Well, so was Zora. She downed what remained of her drink and spoke through the burn. “Kid, you can’t even buy a meal.”
Zora shut her compad with a snap, stuffed it in a pocket somewhere and planted her feet firmly on the floor. All she had to do was stand up, pay for the drinks with a wave of her card, and never see this place again.
Then she heard it. The distinctive radio squawk of an Aurora Security Fleet trooper.
Ice shot through Zora’s veins as every muscle in her body twisted the wrong way starting with her stomach.
The fucking Fash.
The Aurora Security Fleet was theoretically a police force but in practice it was a propaganda campaign of violence that terrorized the Zone’s population into policing itself: safer to play by the (wildly exploitative) rules and to quietly work (yourself to death) than to ever step out of line and become a random example of why it was such a bad idea to step out of line.
The Aurora Syndicate claimed to own every rock between Jupiter and Mars. It was an impossibly huge and valuable territory — the Asteroid Belt was worth an estimated seven hundred quintillion stellars in minerals and metals alone.
But it was functionally impossible to guard a territory one billion kilometers across containing millions of individual asteroids that were themselves millions of kilometers apart. It was ninety-nine percent empty space. It was where people went to get away from everyone else. Officially, these homesteaders were supposed to pay exorbitant rent to the Aurora Syndicate in exchange for the rights to extract wealth from their own rocks. Unofficially, there was no way to keep an eye on every asteroid, so anyone could squat anywhere if they were quiet enough about it.
But the moment the Aurora Syndicate wanted to set up shop? The Aurora Security Fleet happened to them. Thousands of augmented soldiers patrolling the Zone to “maintain a profitable order” with nothing more than overwhelming firepower, unquestionable authority, and zero oversight.
And there, at the other end of the bar, was one of the bastards. The beast. He was speaking with the bartender who had somehow gone even more ghastly in the minute since the brute stomped into the bar.
Fash were always too large. Seven feet tall and probably just as wide. Synthed to the gills. Spoke in shouts. Breathed in snorts. Walked in stomps. Faceless behind a mirrored helmet and encased in so much endurium they needed nuclear batteries and hydraulics to move around. He carried the standard issue howitzer shotgun so big and heavy the armor was built with an extra pair of articulated supports to lug it around.
The bartender, trembling, nodded toward Zora.
The Fash looked right at her.
Merely being a Troubleshooter wasn’t illegal. You had to be caught in the act. As far as anyone knew Zora was just a pilot drinking herself to death between jobs in the middle of nowhere. No different from a billion other independent contractors drifting through the Zone every day.
Her ship was boosted so far it didn’t qualify as a civilian vehicle anymore.
And it was running a falsified transponder that wouldn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny.
And her cargo bay held twenty cases full of No Idea, Officer. All she knew was she didn’t want to be caught with whatever it was. No one went through the hassle and expense of hiring a Troubleshooter to move legal goods from one place to another. Especially at the rate these dopes were paying.
The Fash stomped toward her.
Every instinct told Zora to make for the exit. She could go for her gun. Keep to cover, never stop moving, might even get to the port before the lockdown overrides hit. Then what? No amount of deep breathing in the world would get her biometrics back down to baseline fast enough to unlock her ship before the one-man armored division kicked in the door and also her skull.
Didn’t matter. Her brain was soaked in too much whiskey and her muscles were still twisted up in all the wrong ways. She’d be lucky to blink both eyes at once in this state.
She was only vaguely aware of a tug at her arm.
“Mom, can we go now?” It was the kid.
The Fash stopped in mid-stomp and checked something at the edge of his vision. Tactical display?
“I’ll make sure she doesn’t fly,” the kid was speaking to the Fash now. Pleading. “Just don’t lock her up! Not again. Ship’s keyed to her and I got nowhere to sleep.”
The Fash snorted and leveled his mirrored gaze at Zora. “I WANT YOU DRIED OUT AND GONE BY OH-SEVEN HUNDRED,” he barked. Each word hit her face as individual compression waves of air.
Zora said nothing. All she could do was sweat and nod imperceptibly.
The Fash stomped toward the exit. His target was in another bar.
Zora motioned for the kid to stay, like a dog, without taking her eyes off the bartender. She marched over to him. “Who was he looking for?”
The bartender poured himself a glass of something dark brown. Quite a trick with the bottle shook in one hand and the glass shaking in the other. “I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”
“Who was that Fash looking for!” This time it was a demand.
He gulped down the drink. “I dunno. Some lady. Said she coulda been here in the last hour. Supposed to be, well, about your height, about your build, gray hair.”
“Silver,” Zora grumbled.
“Look, he was gonna see ya anyway. And it wasn’t you he wanted, right? Like I said, I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.” The bartender poured himself another drink.
“Did he give you a name?”
“Sure he did, yeah,” the bartender said. What passed for color was returning his face. “Sutton? Sultan? Something like that anyway. Christ, you never get used to seeing one up close, do ya.”
~ ~ ~
Zora Soltani got her breathing under control as she half marched and half dragged the kid down the street back toward the port.
The Fash was looking for her. But what the hell for?
Okay, bad question. Zora’s entire career was a list of reasons for the Fash to come looking. But here? Now? It didn’t add up.
For one thing no one knew she was in the Trojans. Except her client. But clients hired Troubleshooters to avoid repercussions generally and the Fash very specifically. If the job was a set up, it would inevitably expose the client to exactly the sort of violence and scrutiny they’d hired her to steer clear from.
Sure, she didn’t know who the client was exactly. But she had contacts for the job and they could trace the first payment to, well, somewhere. Everything would point to shell companies within ghost corps wrapped up in false IDs, of course. But all it took was one mistake, or even a weird coincidence, and those threads would lead to something real. Why risk the exposure?
And the portmaster at Crosne would have logs of every ship coming and going while Zora’s ship was there. It’d take some doing but in theory a motivated investigation could cross reference arrivals/departures to work out where the cases in her cargo bay had come from. Maybe even find the corporate goons who unloaded them. They didn’t arrive by magic carpet.
But, again, why would a client set up their own Troubleshooter? Sure, the Fash might not go looking for anyone else when they finished with her. They were notoriously lazy and kinda stupid. But, again, why risk it? Could someone out here in the Trojans, where she didn’t even know anybody, actually hate her enough to brave the Fash?
Maybe that was it. Out here she didn’t know anybody. It’d be easy for Zora to lay low back in the Greeks where she had places to hide and people to trust. But in the Trojans she was alone, helpless.
The only thing Zora knew for certain was this: she had to get the hell away from Crosne.
They crossed into the lower gravity of the port.
~ ~ ~
The kid had only seen maybe a dozen ships up close but she was already fascinated by them. It was easy to imagine the stories behind their patchwork repairs and illegally rigged weapons. The Zone was full of dangers and exploits and adventure. That one was the sleek custom fighter of a mercenary pilot, maybe a bounty hunter, blazing a path of glory across space! That one was a junker converted for smuggling with secret compartments and the hottest jammers to evade authorities and cruise right through checkpoints!
Then there was the Fool’s Errand.
“This is us,” Zora said.
“This?” the kid said like she’d been handed a bag full of wet shit.
~ ~ ~
The Fool’s Errand was an LH-4 Cutlass SE Light Cargo Ship from Sierra StarWorks (an Aurora Syndicate subsidiary). It was popular thirty years ago among homesteaders and small-timers trying to turn a profit hauling their ore across the Zone.
Aesthetics were among the first things cut to keep its production costs low. No Cutlass would ever win a beauty contest and the Fool’s Errand was a particularly rough example of the species. If the ship ever had a paint job it was long ago replaced by several mismatched shades of primer gray. Every nook and corner was stained reddish brown from three decades of built up asteroid dust. The hull was sprinkled with scorch marks from decades of exposure to micrometeorites and misadventure. A few armor plates were missing entirely.
The back half of the ship was a blocky affair boasting more cargo space than you’d expect with a slightly oversized plasma engine on either side. The thrusters were black with carbon scoring like they were half rotten, or pushed too fast, or too hard, or too often. Possibly all of the above. The front half was flatter and more or less aligned with the ship’s upper level. An alonium canopy gave the pilot a commanding view from the flight deck. The Cutlass was never intended to fly in dense atmospheres so it had the mere suggestion of wings sticking out from the engines and a pair of stubby, possibly vestigial, fins at the canopy. The rest sported aerodynamic gestures intended to imply a sense of style without having to pay anyone to come up with one.
Sierra stopped making the Cutlass twenty years ago when the Aurora Syndicate Planned Obsolescence Committee discovered a fundamental design flaw across the entire line that resulted in a Reliability Index .2 higher than anticipated. The Committee estimated this error had already resulted in a loss of millions of stellars in sales of replacement parts. The projected loss of new vehicle sales over the next decade was so staggering that senior executives were required to pass a full medical exam just to access the figures.
Whoever ran Sierra in those days, no one remembers their name now, “retired” in disgrace. The entire Cutlass production line, from macroprinters to concept artists, was “dissolved.” Sierra staff are only half joking when they say this involved vats of acid.
(No, but seriously, the logistics of getting that much acid to the Zone? And then storing it? C’mon, you’d have heard about how it all went wrong by now.)
Much to the chagrin of surviving Sierra StarWorks executives, but much to the profit of their neuroshock therapists, Cutlasses remained a fairly common sight throughout the Zone due to the very design flaw that doomed the line twenty years ago. Owning a Cutlass had become a symbol of having hard work to do without having the means to buy anything better to do it with.
Zora Soltani, owner/captain of the Fool’s Errand, certainly fit that bill. She’d repaired and modified her old Cutlass so many times it was essentially a new craft twice over. A hotrod masquerading as a tired old hauler.
“This?” the kid said again. Once wasn’t enough.
Zora submitted herself to the terminal at her docking bay. A few scans and a few beeps later the port’s docking clamps withdrew. That was a good sign. It meant the Fash hadn’t figured out her ship was flying under a duped transponder. Today it was the Oberon Mermaid.
An access port nestled under one of the wings opened. “C’mon,” Zora said as she stepped up the extended ramp and into her ship.
Most of the interior lights flickered to life as Zora stepped into the cargo bay. The kid followed. The ship’s interior could do nothing to improve anyone’s first impression from the exterior. The ceiling was lower than she expected. Not so low that she or Zora had to hunch, but exactly low enough to make you worry about how low it was. This was the result of all the heavy industrial stuff like the fusion dynamo, phase drive, and life support up in the engineering section above them. About the only orderly thing in the whole space were twenty identical cases stacked up and strapped down in four stacks of five along one wall. Storage crates and bins were locked into various spots throughout the cargo bay. Apparently at random. Each one was a different size and color.
The door shut behind them. It whirred, clicked, and hissed as its locks and seals automatically set for space travel.
Zora effortlessly threaded the needle of her haphazard cargo labyrinth as she moved toward the front of the ship. The kid navigated the maze without too much difficulty thanks to the lower gravity. She reached the bottom of the ladder leading up into the fore just as Zora slipped out of sight at the top.
The kid found Zora chugging the cold remnants of what had once been a pack of koffee in the hab module nestled between the flight deck at the front and the engineering section at the rear. It was a storage space that could fold out into a hotel room. These amenities separated a Cutlass Special Edition like the Fool’s Errand from a mere rank and file Cutlass. Everything was cleverly designed to fold up and disappear until you needed it. There was a table with bench seats in one wall that could be converted into some kind of bed, a combination sink/washer, a combination autochef/microburst oven, a combination toilet/shower, a combination washer/dryer, and a closet/pantry.
Zora finished her terrible drink and stowed the packet in a trash chute that would eventually lead to the fusion dynamo. Then she pushed into the flight deck. “Strap in,” Zora said.
The kid followed.
Zora was seated, belted up, and already working through the preflight sequence to bring the ship’s systems online by the time the kid was done fumbling with the zero-g restraints and properly locked down in the passenger seat. The kid had a fairly good view out the wide canopy even though she was slightly behind and to the right of the pilot.
The Fool’s Errand came to life all around them. This was a noisier affair than it was for most ships. Its systems warmed up with reluctance, like an old man muttering about his bad back and bum knee as he struggled out of his favorite chair. Everything creaked as the ship came online for launch. Zora could feel the engines as a soft buzz going through the hull and up into her boots. Her chair rattled very slightly.
Zora’s navigational control negotiated with the portmaster’s computer to guide the Oberon Mermaid out of Crosne without incident. Hardly seemed necessary to automate port maneuvers in such a remote rock but it gave Zora time to think.
What if the client wanted to be caught? What if the usual obfuscation had been done, but it was sloppy? So even the dumbest, laziest Fash couldn’t help but notice the trail extending out from Zora’s capture to another, easier, bigger collar? A whole meticulously constructed line of evidence to implicate a third party altogether?
What if Zora was nothing but collateral damage in a shadowy dispute between one Aurora subsidiary and another? Or two different execs on the same board? Just some suit looking to destroy or disgrace a rival?
The portmaster’s computer guided the Fool’s Errand out of Crosne. No sign of any other traffic. From the outside it was just another misshapen, lumpy asteroid. Its sickly shade of gray only looked worse in the pale light afforded this far from the sun. It was covered in the usual signs of life. Towers and domes poked out from the interior at odd angles. Piping, vents, and maintenance tubes crawled across the surface like veins. Sensor spires collected and transmitted terabytes to and from every direction.
The Fool’s Errand hiccuped as the portmaster computer relinquished the ship to manual control. The navcon projected a sea of holographic icons across the canopy. The whole ship shook as Zora punched straight to afterburners. The kid tightened her grip on the straps of her safety harness just to make sure they kept her where she was.
Zora only took the job because it paid so damn much. What she knew to be a suspiciously high amount. But she couldn’t refuse an opportunity to clear her debts.
And now the Fash were on her.
She turned the Fool’s Errand hard and the kid hung on even harder. Zora centered their heading on an icon labeled [DROP] and punched commands into the instrument panel to prep for sublight.
Would anyone even be there?
Navcon locked. Power couplings hummed as the fusion dynamo diverted maximum power through the phase drive. Path confirmed. Displacement Field initialized. The Fool’s Errand winked out of sight.
Zora didn’t have anything like a plan but that never stopped her before. Anyway, she wouldn’t have to worry about it until they reached their destination. Plenty of time to figure something out.
~ ~ ~