Monday, February 6, 2017

Riding the Light (Story)

This is the third, and for now, final, short story in the world / content that supports my novel in progress (the novel is called The True Size of the Universe). Writing these three stories has really helped me reconnect with the worldview of the novel, and I feel ready to jump back into it now, so I'll be concentrating on that in whatever time I can salvage for writing.

In terms of timeline, I have now written or part-written five things within this universe / master story; they go like this:
  • Theory of Mind (Verse novella, unpublished, completed in NaNoWriMo 2015) - Set on Earth, approx 80 years from present
  • The Desolation of Vesta (Short story, published to blog) - Set on the planetoid Vesta, approx 200 years from present
  • Riding the Light (Short story, published to blog) - Set in the asteroid Belt, approx 250 years from present
  • The Gardens of Demos Attina (Short story, published to blog) - Set on the moon world of Demos, approx 280 years from present
  • The True Size of the Universe (Novel, in progress) - Set in deep space, approx 400 years from present
As Shakespeare says, the past is prologue. Getting a deeper feel for where my novel comes from has helped me see what's wrong with it in its current form and understand why I've been blocked in moving it forward. Hopefully now I can get moving again on both writing and rewriting.

This story does connect up to the novel, as it's the tale of how the grandfather of my main protagonist in the novel, Ciro Grady, lost an eye when mining in the Belt. His name is Jock, and while this isn't primarily his story, he's important in it.

Riding the Light

Things can get pretty damn dull, out in the Belt.

Oh, we work hard and long, when we're working a seam. The shipbots do most of the suction, of course, but grading and separating and plotting the path for the little mech critters to follow - that's a human job, and one that calls for instinct and experience and a lot of time squinting at fragments so small you'd swear they were hardly there.

But between the seams, in the long, spacey weeks of cruising, waiting for a sniff of something good ... well, day-cycles can go on forever, and the boredom of it can make people a little off, to put it mildly. That doesn't work out so well when you need people to swing into action at a moment's notice. Holding yourself ready even when nothing whatever is happening is a skill, and it takes time to learn it.

Seasoned crews do better, of course, and ones that are well-matched, used to each other, do best of all. Any Belt Captain's worst nightmare is taking out a rookie crew, but the Guild makes us take out newbs, at least sometimes.

Oh, the logic's sound enough. How else will any new workers come through unless someone takes the time and trouble to blood them? That doesn't mean anyone wants to be Johnny-on-the-spot, though.

You can usually tell who's in the frame for a rookie run by the volume of the groans in port on Demos or Mars Prima, the big assignment stations Earthside of the Belt. I hear Callisto Augusta is sending newbs out too, squeezing mineships from both ends these days. Situation normal for the Guild of Moons, but not fantastic for Captains trying to make their pile before the Belt makes them dead.

I had groaned, loud enough to be heard in Copernica Luna, the last time we docked at Mars Prima.


"Captain T'vela, sir -"

"Cadet Geryon."

He stood, flushed with exertion, in the narrow gangway leading to the cargo hold. I sighed internally. Shuffling a few dozen mixed-ore crates, with the aid of the bots, shouldn't have raised a sweat in anyone, but this kid was neither land nor space fit - he'd be better in a Guild office somewhere in a City dome, approving permits and soothing down outraged passengers when the ships, as ships inevitably did, ran late or altered course without warning.

"Captain ... First Officer Grady. He says there's something you should see."

I raised my eyebrow slightly, but followed him as he led the way back down the dim corridor to the cargo.

Jock was standing in the middle of the half-empty hold, his hand on the control of one of the little cleaner-bots we'd specced up to when we were in Prima. His gaze was distant and he seemed lost in thought - not a particularly common state for him. The best second a Captain could want, and a longtime friend, but not a deep thinker, Jock.

"Jock?" I said, moving to his side. "Mikel here says you found something?"

He turned to face me, and I saw for the first time the depth of his bewilderment. "Aye, Christina," he said. "Well, perhaps. I don't know. I can't - I don't know."


Jock handed me an assay tablet, his thick forefinger jabbing at the third line. "There!"

I looked at the tablet, then stared again in confusion. "That can't be right."

Jock snorted. "You're telling me! It can't be, but if it is ..."

"What in space could possibly -"

"It might be an instrument failure. Although I sent five bots."

I tipped my head, trying to dislodge the dread building up in my neck. Jock was right; this was serious. It could be fatal to us all.

First things first. "Are we going to need anyone else?"

Jock thought for a minute, then said, "Alexis, definitely. Roy, maybe? I think we're going to have to go EVA for this. To work it out."

"EVA? What for? The bots can -"

Jock's head went back. "No. I already sent five of them, remember, and what they're reporting - it doesn't make any sense. We're going to have to go look. Great gods, Christina! Don't you think I know my job by now?"

Ignoring Mikel Geryon's bug-eyes (we tend to cut good miners a lot of slack, out in the black wilds), I said, "EVA's a big risk, out here. With Vesta decommissioned, we're a good 10 days' sailing from the nearest port, and even that's a midget facility on Hera 7. Very basic field hospital conditions only, they can't treat for -"

"Any serious loss. I know, Captain." Jock ran his hands through his thick black hair. "But if we don't go, none of us may make it back anyway. We've got to know."

The gasping behind me was pronounced enough to agitate the cleaner-bot in Jock's hand; it twitched to get away, desperate to investigate. They were useful enough, but I'd already had opportunity to wish they'd been programmed with less overwhelming compulsion to respond to noise in case it signalled a mess.

Without turning my head, I said, "Cadets Tang and Desmullah. Do you know where Harris and Patel are? We may have a need for them shortly."

Anise Tang, a round little girl with cherry-blossom-pink eyes, fluted "They are on sleep rotation, Captain. Shall I rouse them?" For all her cotton-candy eyes and engineered child soprano, she was the toughest and most pragmatic of the three. Which was not saying much; but I'll grant that she seemed less spooked than Geryon, who had sunk onto a crate and was hyperventilating, or Quinn Desmullah, who looked like he was about to lose his lunch.

"Not the best bloody time to be running on half-rations," Jock grunted, but softly. He hadn't been happy about having to leave two of our crew in port to board the three newbs, but he was fair-minded enough not to take it out of their hides. Mostly.

I nodded to Tang. "Yes, rouse them. We'll need to convene a ship meeting right away."


Three scraps of humanity, hanging in the void, separated from infinity by a quad layer of insulation suit and a moulded rebreather. Three blind mice, probing the space dust, tethers holding us to the ship as we spin slowly, slowly, in this glowing night. Three Belt miners -

Or, no. Two, and what I am beginning to fear is a mistake.

Jock had laid out the problem and the task in his customary unadorned fashion, as Roy Harris and Alexis Patel rubbed sleep from their eyes and struggled into their boots.

"Three, to go?" Alexis had said, already turning towards the rebreather rack. "I'll suit up, Captain. Do you want Roy, or will Jock -"

"Roy should stay. We will need his skills to draw us home." Harris inclined his head towards me, his deep calm soothing.

Alexis was already halfway into her suit when Anise Tang spoke, softly but clearly. "Captain."

I paused. "Cadet?"

"Captain, I believe the Guild requirements specify that cadets must be given opportunity to participate in EVA, should the ship have occasion to engage in one. During the course of its journey."

Roy sighed, while Alexis opened her mouth to speak, but Jock got there first. "Are you touched,  little girl?" he barked disbelievingly. "Did you hear what I said? What the Captain said? This is no ship-shining securewalk we're talking about here. This is a job for grown-ups -"

"I heard." Tang's voice was like a starling's song laced with steel - a peculiar, unsettling effect. "We all signed danger disclaimers to board this vessel, First Officer. We will not learn enough without taking some risks. We are prepared." I stole a glance at Geryon and Desmullah, skulking behind her. They didn't look particularly prepared; they looked, in fact, as scared as we should all be, given the circumstances.

I said, "Alright, Tang. Point made." Jock began to protest, but I cut him off with my hand. "However. It is my judgement as Captain that taking all three of you would pose an unacceptable risk to the mission, and the ship." Tang's brow creasd slightly, as I went on, "One of you may take the place of Officer Patel. Only one."

So now here we are, circling in these fireflies made of the dust of stars - Jock, me, and Anise Tang. Untried, untested, and already unravelling as we move away from sanctuary in the black wilds of the Belt.


The head mikes are scratchy. "Christina - spin left," says Jock tersely, his voice granulated by the transmission.

"Captain, Captain, I see something -"

"Where are you, Tang?" I swivel in frustration, but she's moved out of my sightlines and that's not good. Visual at all times is the rule, but she's unblooded and the rules aren't in her veins yet.

"Captain, I don't know what it is, I don't know -"

Jock interjects. "It's alright, lass," he says, his voice low, gentling her. Now that it's done and we're here with her, he knows what must be. "Tell us what you see, we'll find you."

Her breathing's ragged in the headpiece, but she says, "Tiny stars. I see ... tiny stars. Here, in front of me."

There is a pause as long as twenty heartbeats.

"Anise," I say, barely daring to breathe, "can you pull back on your tether? Can you draw back towards the ship? If you can do that, do it, and don't touch anything, alright? Just don't -"

That is when she starts screaming.

Jock's swearing in my ear and I am spinning, spinning, eyes going left right left up down right where is she where where

Then I see her, and I know it's almost certainly already too late. She's lit up like a candle on a Yule tree, her body rigid, her mouth open inside her helmet as a continuous stream of astounded agony pours out of her.

Jock is yelling at me now, Get back, get back, great gods Christina she's gonna blow any minute and I look back towards my ship, just a speck in the distance now, the dull coppery sheen of its hull a lodestone, and I say:

"Anise, Anise, I'm coming."

Jock's swearing at me in five languages now, including one I've sure has been dead since Earth fell, but I stay my course, spinning through the emptiness towards the sickly shimmering, towards the cadet, towards tiny speckled fragments of hell.

"Anise. Listen to me."

Her screams have subsided into sobs now, but they slacken, fall silent. I press my advantaage.

"You've been pierced by Casey subatoms. Do you know what they are?"

She sobs a hiccup. "Old star radiants. Rogue clusters of them out past Saturn -"

"And, apparently, in the Belt," I finish. "Although no one knew so, until now." Jock's jabbering away to Alexis back on board ship, but I mute him, moving slowly towards the shining girl.

"Yes. That's what's happened. We need to get you back to the ship and into a containment pod as soon as we can do that."

Silence. Then: "It hurts, Captain."

Her voice is fading, and I know the likelihood is she's already dead, but still I spin, concentric circles moving closer to my target with each minute.

When I get close enough to see her face through the visor, I see that her eyes, once the prettiest floss pink the geneticists of Luna could summon, are now crimson red, sightless, with blood trickling from the tear ducts like the sorrow of an ancient star.

"Anise," I say, and she raises her head towards me.

"I wanted -" she says. "My parents, they wanted me to go for a Guild marriage, be safe. But I wanted ..." Her voice is weak, distant, and hands are lax beside her.

"Come on, child," I say, as I snap her tether string to my waist belt. "Let's get you home, then." I unmute my second mike. "Jock?"

"Christina, where -"

"Jock, I'm bringing her in. Get Alexis to have the radipod ready, yes? We're coming in from the upper left."

He says nothing for a moment, then: "Christina. Any minute, she could -"

"I'll be coming in hard," I say. "Be ready, alright?"

Spinning through the dark, spinning silently, two locked-together specks of flesh, one aglow, one in shadow. People are weightless in space, but I feel the weight of her in my arms, nonetheless. She's completely quiet now; only her life signs monitor tells me she's still breathing.

"Captain!" Alexis's voice is loud, anxious, in my ear. "I've prepped the radipod, but -"

"Good. Thank you, Alexis." I can hear the downward fade in my own voice, and I look down at my hand, now starting to glow in the blackness. It was inevitable, I suppose.

"Captain, we wonder if - If she caught a full load, well -"

"We'll head straight for the field hospital. Tell Roy, yes?" And now my voice is crackling like space static even though I'm within clear visual of the ship now, in the cleanest of comm ranges.

Jock cuts in. "I'm back in the bay, Captain. Ready to catch you, when you get here."

"Thank you," I say, and then I say no more. It feels like there is no breath to speak and the pain in my chest is growing.

Thirty seconds later, I hear my own breath inside my head and I know.

The ship looms hugely in my misted sightline and I unclip Anise from my belt. "Live, then," I say, and push her towards Jock's waiting arms. They're all clustered at the dock, even the cadets, and they're shouting something towards me bur it doesn't make any sense anymore and I push away, frog-legs pressed against the hull for traction, aiming to go deep, deep, deep, before -

All the tiny stars recombine, and make an infant sun.

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