“It was in the early years after our home was forever lost to us that saw the best that mankind had to offer. In the face of such a profound disaster and loss, the survivors put their best foot forward, selflessly offering help to those who could not help themselves. From Inner Sol to the Fringes of the Jovian System, great acts of bravery and heroism became the norm. Unfortunately, our baser natures grasped at us, and this did not last. It took a decade for the Legion and the Exterra to claim the highest powers, and five more to ensure it could never be challenged.”
– Elder Gregor Solzhenitsyn, The Book of Sol
Walker hated Mars.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. It was definitely pretty, especially from the observation deck aboard Icarus Station. Icarus Station floated high above the Martian equator, high enough to see for thousands of kilometers in every direction. Above the thin clouds and newly-forming seas and lakes, one might have thought Mars as a beacon of life that rivaled Earth in its heyday. In fact, Icarus often billed itself as looking over paradise.
But Mars wasn’t paradise. Far from it. Populated mostly by a clueless working class that thought themselves free, while being ultimately controlled by the whims of the corporations. Limiting immigration to an often absurd level– Mars for Martians was a common sentiment there. Sure, in their off-time, workers could avail themselves of all sorts of recreational activities. But that didn’t change the fact that they were little more than indifferent numbers to put on an invoice, meaningless to the men who did the paperwork.
Still, of the few terrestrial colonies scattered across Sol, Mars was probably the most desirable. At least for those who were used to higher gravities.
Walker wasn’t one of those people. He’d grown up on the Jovian Combine, a loose collection of stations in Jupiter’s orbit that had united in the years following Zero Day. Gravity wasn’t so common there unless you had the misfortune of seeking a career as a Cloud Skimmer, where you would spend inordinate amounts of time in a high gravity environment. Even then, however, it was only during corrective burns to prevent the Skimmers from being sucked into Jupiter’s atmosphere. Still, they would pray the G-Force didn’t get so intense that their chest cavities would collapse under its own weight.
As such, Walker had been wearing his LEGS. The advanced prosthetic had been in heavy use even before Zero Day, not long after Zero-G Atrophy Syndrome became one of the biggest health risks for space-faring citizens and workers. In those days, Legion had been a biomedical firm seeking answers to some of the biggest challenges of space travel. Their answer to ZAS were the LEGS; The Lateral External Gravity Stabilizer. His particular model was hammered together with a bevy of spare parts squirrelled away by Mickey, his best friend and resident engineer aboard their ship, Gambler’s Ruin, but they kept him upright despite the lack of strength in his own legs, especially under the gravity constraints of Icarus, which was roughly half that of what he might have weighed on the surface.
Without them, he would have buckled under his own weight.
He looked over the landscape below, watching the steam and smoke rising from a number of settlements along the Martian equator. Mars was greener now than he’d seen the last time he was there. With terraforming stepping up the way it had since Zero Day, and the melting of the polar ice caps, the growth of food on Mars was a viable method to keeping the remnants of the human race alive. The more optimistic people believed one day that people would be able to walk around on the surface without a respirator. The cynics and nihilists believed such a thing was only a pipe dream, and that man would never again live in an environment like Earth.
Walker was the type who didn’t care either way. Operating under gravity only stifled him. He preferred the peace of the void, and as much as he enjoyed a good breath of fresh air, that was never his concern. Money, that was his concern.
But none of those reasons explained his visceral hatred of Mars. It wasn’t the working class, nor was it the Corp-Cattle. It wasn’t the gravity, the primordial seas or barely-growing vegetation that tinted various areas of the horizon with a light green shade. It was actually his main concern: Money.
He’d started working out his bill for docking at Icarus, with its direct transport elevator down to the surface. Five hundred BitBucks to dock, plus a hundred for every head taking in oxygen aboard the station. Not to mention refilling the Ruin’s water and food reserves. It hadn’t taken long to get there from Ceres, only four days since they’d managed to get an EmDriveG fitted onto the ship. It might have taken up to twelve using their old engine, but Mickey had made a great deal for an upgrade their last time at Europa.
He also hated the spectacle that any trip to Mars brought with it. Walker had been to Icarus a handful of times, seen what it had to offer, and found it wanting. He’d never gone to the surface, he’d heard too many tales of people trying to escape it, not to mention how prejudice Martians tended to be about outsiders. But if the people who lived there hated it, that was enough evidence for Walker. Mickey, on the other hand, had always loved terrestrial settlements. She’d been born on the Combine, like him, but raised on Europa, like her father and his father before him. Before Zero Day, some people got the big idea to set up a mining colony on an ice moon. The bad news was that you had to get through layers of ice to get to any real minerals. The good news was that with copious amounts of ice, water, and thus food, was plentiful, making the colony a godsend after the loss of Earth. Problem was that for the first thirty years after Zero Day, it wasn’t a place you could leave very easily. It was also the type of place where you didn’t really get to see much more vegetation that you could catch a glimpse of walking past the greenhouses. If you were lucky, you could find work in one of them. But farming was too prestigious for Mickey. Her father had been an engineer, so she too had picked up that trade. Still, whenever she came to Mars, it was like seeing a child at Christmas. All wonder and excitement. It was a unique mood for the usually cynical Mickey, despite her disdain for being around Corp-Cattle.
Then there was Gavin. Gavin had been born on Mars, but he wasn’t lucky enough to be born among the upper class in the Arabia Terra Highlands, where Mars’ elite would frolic. He was born in a converted lava tube near the Gale Crater. Born to die young and harvest nickel for the Corps. Fortunately for Gavin, he didn’t much care for that lot in life and hopped the first skipper to the Fringes years ago, smuggling himself far away from Martian authorities. Gavin shared Walker’s outlook on Mars, albeit for far different reasons.
Walker hated it because it was expensive. Gavin hated it because it was home.
He checked his watch impatiently as he leaned up against a wall looking out over the promenade, his back starting to become sore under the gravity. Fifteen minutes wasted already waiting for his contact. He was late. Gavin should have been there with him, but the fool was far too paranoid to venture into the station with him, lest he come across someone he once knew. There were well over a half-million people living on Mars, but with it being the same half-million people as a generation ago, chances of running into someone you used to know were often too high. Even when Walker pointed out that it was his contact they were going to meet, Gavin refused. Said he had work to do.
As for Mickey, she was far more interested in hitting up the shopping promenade aboard the Icarus and find some new parts for the Ruin. She’d been working hard trying to get the Ruin’s computer to behave, and figured that it would need some hardware upgrades.
And so there he was, lounging around on a space elevator with the philosophical equivalent of a thumb up his ass.
Ah, the life of a courier.
“Excuse me,” someone said from nearby. Walker looked over to regard the man. He was a tall, Sikh man with a full beard speckled with white. He wore a turban of a deep navy blue and wore a look of concern on his face. “You’re captain Dane?” He was walking free, without the assistance of any gravity-correcting prosthetic. Whoever this man was, he was from the Martian surface. Walker felt a pang of jealousy due to the thickness of the muscles in his legs, but he put it aside.
“That’s me,” Walker replied. Finally, he thought. “Although I prefer Walker. You’re Singh?”
“I am, sir,” he replied, then looked around nervously.
“Relax,” Walker said. “You’re going to draw more attention by looking around like that. Innocent people tend not to worry so much about who might be listening in.”
“Ah yes,” Singh replied. He extended his hand in greeting. “Rajinder.”
Walker took his hand and shook it. “Gavin extends his apologies for not coming to the meeting, but I’m sure you understand.”
Rajinder nodded in understanding. “Yes,” he said. “For the best, I imagine. He left far before his educational contract was fulfilled. The authorities won’t pursue him, but should they come across him, that’s a different matter.” He sighed. “He never was one for Mars, I’m afraid. Even when he called Mars home. Too much eagerness, not enough wisdom.”
“I know the type,” Walker said. “Was one of them myself, once. Which is partly why I didn’t want to do this job, but Gavin told me your money was good. However, I try not to take jobs until I know what the job is. I’m still torn on this one.”
Rajinder nodded. “Ah yes. The need for… privacy in this case is paramount, I’m afraid. I have something that needs to be moved off-world.”
“And obviously something you don’t want customs getting wind of,” Walker added. “So what is it?”
Singh shot him an uncomfortable look.
“Right,” Walker said. “Secrecy. Okay, well just swear to me it isn’t something that’ll kill us all with radiation poisoning before we reach… sorry, where is it we’re going?”
“Saturn,” Singh replied.
Walker’s eyebrow shot up. “Saturn?” He felt immediately suspicious. Why Saturn? Nobody went to Saturn. And those that did rarely, if ever came back, even when the orbits aligned. It had been years since he’d heard of anyone even bothering to visit. “That’s over a billion kilometers, Mr. Singh.”
Singh nodded. “Yes, I’m aware. One-point-two billion kilometers just between orbital paths, let alone to the planet itself.”
Walker sighed. While it was true that Saturn would be approachable in relation to Jupiter within the next month, it just didn’t make sense. “Look,” he said. “While I can appreciate the urgency here, that’s… I mean, Saturn is a hell of a long way. Even if we restock with water at Jovian Combine, we’d have to ration, and–”
“Please, Mr. Dane. I am aware of this. I was also told that you fly one of the few models capable of making the trip.”
“Capable, yes. But you’re crazy if you think–”
“Five hundred thousand BitBucks,” Singh said, effectively shutting Walker’s mouth.
Walker blinked. Five hundred thousand BitBucks? That was enough to retire on. Hell, that was enough to buy his way onto one of the LaGrange Stations run by Exterra or Legion in old Earth orbit and live the rest of his years being fed grapes by nubile young women. If they timed it right, they could make it. They could ration their water, maybe even overstock.
But there was still another problem.
“So you want us to deliver some cargo to… where, exactly? There are no stations in Saturn’s orbit. No colonies. Who are we supposed to deliver it to?”
“I would like for your crew to jettison the cargo near Triton. And then return,” he pulled out two flash cards from his pocket. “May I?” he motioned to Walker’s SmartWatch.
Unsure, Walker offered his wrist to the man. He scanned one of the cards over his watch. The display changed, showing a string of numbers. A very generous string of numbers.
“If you agree, you will get half of the money now, at this very moment. That will ensure an even more comfortable trip for you,” Singh explained. “I will then leave the second card in your possession, and give you the key upon your return.”
Walker opened his mouth to protest, but he could not think of anything to say. There was a chance the man was pulling his leg, but he’d never known a Sikh to be a liar. He assumed it was against their religion. He remained silent as he mulled it over. Take the cargo to Mars, then dump it out. Was Singh trying to dispose of something? It seemed a little extreme. Overkill, perhaps.
But that money, though.
Walker took a deep breath. The decision was ultimately up to him. Mickey and Gavin were technically his employees, they’d go along with what he wanted. Or they wouldn’t, and would go off on their own. But looking at the zeroes on his watch display, he didn’t think that was a likely outcome.
He looked Singh in the eye. “All right,” he said. “We’ll deliver your cargo.”
Singh closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. “I thank you,” he said. He then entered a passkey into his own watch. Moments later, Walker’s watch reacted, asking him to acknowledge the transfer of funds into his account.
He pressed the button, and felt a rare moment of finality as he did so. Had he made the right decision?
That thought was pushed out of his head by the sheer number of zeroes in the transfer.
“Okay,” Walker said, taking the second flash card from Singh. “So we contact you when we get back, we get whatever’s on this card?”
“So where’s this cargo?”
“I will make the arrangements to have it moved aboard your ship,” he said. “Customs already has it, under the eye of a… friend.”
“You mean someone you paid off, don’t you?”
Singh ignored the question. “It’s very important that you not tamper with the cargo. What is inside is no harm to you or your ship. But it must be delivered to Saturn intact.”
“And how will you know if I kept my end of the bargain?”
“I will know,” he said. “God will know.”
Walker couldn’t keep his chuckle contained. “God’s got eyes on Saturn now, has he?”
“More eyes than you know,” Singh said. He smiled out of the corner of his mouth. “It was a pleasure, Mr. Dane. Please check in at customs when you’re ready to leave. The sooner you leave, the better off we’ll all be.”
“Fine by me,” Walker said. “It’s expensive enough visit Mars, let alone stick around for very long. Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Singh.”
“Doctor,” Singh corrected.
Few things angered Mickey so much as Corp-Cattle. Not once had she ever met one she liked, male or female. They were all the same. Smug. Perfectly happy to look down their nose at anyone not born under the corporate umbrella of Inner Sol. And unfortunately, they were everywhere on Icarus.
This didn’t mean that all Martians were Corp-Cattle, of course. Most Martians were a humble folk, if suspicious of those not born on the soil. Hard workers and family types were the most common. But Corp-Cattle still filled many positions of authority on Mars. Whether they were contracted security forces, traders or bureaucrats, they all had the same flavor. They shared a way of speaking that irked her. They normally spoke very formally, the way a politician would when speaking to his constituents. Official-sounding, but inherently condescending. And of course, they were able to speak to anyone as though they were an inch tall, just by virtue of being in earshot of them.
She supposed they couldn’t help it. Corp-Cattle were born and raised on one of the five LaGrangian stations situated along the Earth’s former orbital path. You couldn’t even get onto any of the stations unless you were fortunate enough to have been born there, or to buy your way in.
Mickey had read up on them quite a bit back when she was a student. It was required learning for her engineering classes back on Europa. The five stations were once part of an old program to set up spaceports at all the major equilibrium points so that it didn’t have to take more than a few months to traverse the Outer Sol in order to get back to Earth. The project had been set up before the more reliable EmDrive models had been introduced, which facilitated travel to most areas between Earth’s former orbit and Jupiter within no more than a few weeks. Unfortunately, the destruction of the planet forced the stations to become somewhat repurposed, and they soon became the property of the two remaining Corporations after Zero Day.
Exterra and Legion. The former had initially been dedicated to space-lane shipping. The latter, a research and development firm with numerous think tanks and floating labs. Not long after Zero Day, the Lagrangian Stations were repurposed to house the newly-formed Corporate Congress, comprised of the highest-ranking officials in each company, to train their employees and offer living space and all the remaining amenities of life.
Mickey saw a picture of it once. They lived in a veritable paradise compared to where Mickey grew up. Fresh water, finely-tuned machines and endless nutrition. Arboretums that ran the lengths of the stations, swimming pools, and more. There were certainly a few settlements on Mars that were somewhat comparable, but on Europa? When Mickey was little, she was lucky to eat once a day. Things got easier as she grew older, grew smart and her ability to understand machines became her most valuable asset, of course.
That had been her father’s gift to her. On Europa, women tended to become one of two things. A wife, or a whore. Sometimes both. Mickey wasn’t too keen on becoming either. She’d been a tomboy growing up, free-spirited and focused, and her father taught her everything he knew about how to keep the machines on Europa running.
He died when she was twelve, but his last act was to ensure she’d receive an education. Then, as soon as the opportunity arose, Mickey found work on a passenger transit line running between the Europa Ice Fields and the Jovian Combine.
That’s where she’d met Walker, the proud owner of a brand new seventy-year old Starline Galaxy S-25 that he’d named The Gambler’s Ruin. He said it was some old statistical theory about hedging bets, but he didn’t strike her as the kind of guy who looked too deeply on issues of mathematics. Chances were, he named it so because he’d won the ship it in a poker game and thought it sounded cool. Regardless, he was in need of an engineer, and it didn’t take long for either of them to bond over their mutual disdain of Corp-Cattle.
And now, she was faced with one of the rudest, most entitled and ignorant men she’d ever met in her life. He wore the uniform of one of Exterra’s contract security forces, but his breath smelled like whiskey. She could smell it clearly because when he’d come up from behind her and put his arm around her, it ended up six inches from her face.
“You’re not from around here, are you honey?” he asked. “Travelin’?”
“Remove your arm from me,” she warned. “And leave me alone.”
“Ah, don’t be like that. You’re pretty. I think we could be friends.”
The Corp-Cattle laughed as though she’d made a joke. “What’s your name, baby girl?”
Mickey weighed her options. She could throat-punch him right where they stood and he’d be writhing on the floor gasping for breath within seconds. But the sight of a uniformed security officer, even if he was off-duty, in that kind of state would draw the wrong sort of attention.
She could play along, entice him into an enclosed space, away from prying eyes and knee him in the groin hard enough that his future children would be born with their eyes rolled into the back of their skull.
Another option was to just roll with it and get her rocks off. What had it been? Three months since that nameless dock loader at the Combine? That option was dismissed as quickly as it had come up. She could never be that hard up for a lay.
The fourth option it was, then. She turned to face the man face-on and looked up into his eyes. He smiled at her, then suavely tried to lean in for a kiss.
Then he stopped. His eyes shot open, and he opened his mouth, his voice barely audible as he emitted a high-pitched grunt. Mickey had her hand locked firmly around the man’s scrotum.
“You feel this?” she asked, then gripped it even tighter.
He nodded vigorously.
“These hands can loosen a three-inch bolt threaded tighter than a schoolboy’s ass on hazing night in Zero-G,” she said, then tightened her grip even further. “Turning some fool Corp-Cattle piece of shit into a castrato is not beyond my capabilities. You get me?”
“Now I’m gonna let go. But one word from you, one peep, and you’ll never breed. And I make a complaint to the local authorities that one of their officers like to sexually harass tourists. You feel me?”
“I’d take that deal if I were you,” a voice interrupted from nearby. Mickey looked over to the source. Walker strolled up to the two of them. “She never breaks her word.” He looked to her. “You good?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “I’m good.” She looked to the security officer. “You good?”
A final nod.
Mickey released her grip. The officer instinctively grabbed his groin, then shied backward. His expression grew angry, and for the briefest of moments, he looked as though he were about to say something. Fortunately for everyone involved, he thought better of it and instead backed away, then disappeared down the corridor.
Mickey turned to Walker. “How long were you watching for?”
“Long enough to know you could handle it,” he replied, then took note of her shoulder bag. He gestured toward it. “What you got there?”
“Water filters, spare cabling for the conduit in the cockpit. Also picked up a new processor and some memory for EthOS. It should quadruple her processing speed, and this.” She showed him a blank flash card.
“And that is?”
“Third party software patch,” she said. “Adds a few personality modules to her, and best of all, passive mode.”
“Passive mode?” Walker asked. He grabbed the flash card from her hand. “You know how illegal this is? Where’d you get this?”
“I know a guy who referred a guy,” she said, snatching it back from him. She regarded Walker for a moment. “What about you? Is it done?”
“I’d say so. Two-hundred and fifty thousand down. Another two-hundred thousand fifty on completion.”
“Jesus Christ, you could coat the Ruin in gold for that. Where does he have us going, Alpha Proxima?”
“About as close as you can get,” he replied. “Saturn.”
“Saturn?” Mickey asked. “That’s at least a month out. Why? There’s nothing there.”
“Delivery,” he said. “And I guess he thinks otherwise, which is why I took the job.”
“Lie better,” she said. “You took the job because it’s five hundred thousand.” She shrugged. “We’ve never been cooped up that long in the Ruin. We best stock up at Jovian Combine. We should get some rice wine.”
“I figure that’s a good plan,” he said. “You still have shopping to do, or can we vacate this place before it eats up our entire profit margin?”
“Oh, vacate. Please,” she said. “What about the cargo?”
“With customs,” he said. “Friendly types.”
“So he was bribed? What are we moving?”
“Don’t know, don’t care.”
“What, you mean money is all it takes to make Walker Dane overlook his own well-being?”
“It’s an odd request,” he said. “But I don’t really get the sense the guy’s up to anything sinister. Paranoid, for sure. But with what he’s paying, I don’t really care. I just wanna get off of this floating yo-yo.”
“Yeah. My back’s starting to get sore.”
“That’s ‘cause you spend too much time on it.”
“Shut it,” Mickey said. She whacked him in the chest as he laughed. The two of them bantered back and forth as they followed the marked path to the Docks. Through the viewports, Mickey saw a number of vessels parked outside the station, each connected through a series of ports and tubes to the main structure. The telltale shape of the Gambler’s Ruin stood out to her. It was larger than some of the newer ships, most of them designed and developed after Zero Day. For a time, it had sat in a wreck cloud within the Jovian system. When Walker had acquired it, it was assumed that the ship would never fly again. But between Walker’s negotiation skills and Mickey’s technical know-how, the two of them made the ship once again spaceworthy.
Sure, it took three years, numerous fixes and thousands of Bits, but eventually it flew. Not long after, Mickey’d broken her leg during an excursion on Ceres. At the time, Gavin had been doing humanitarian work at a clinic there. They shared a brief romance before they learned they were better as friends. That’s when Walker asked him to join the crew.
Gavin had jumped at the chance and accompanied them on a short run transporting a hold full of nickel to Jovian Paradise. That’s when their fourth crewmember joined up.
Or rather, came online. EthOS was an advanced computer intelligence operating system designed for entertainment originally, complete with varying personality modules to help keep the long-distance hauling crews occupied and sane. But that was in the days when most of the crews had a home to return to. A home that ceased to exist on Zero Day.
The company that had designed EthOS also ceased to exist that day. But she had been in such wide use for the Fringe haulers that it wasn’t long before some adept engineers and hackers had managed to repurpose her to handle the framework of several different models of ship and manage ship operations, including the Starline Galaxy series. The patch that Mickey had purchased was one such example of that; with the exception that it allowed EthOS to put the Ruin’s systems into passive mode, making it nearly undetectable by other ships. That was highly illegal in the inner system. But it was often life or death while crossing the asteroid belt, where Jackers tended to punch holes in any ship passing by that looked like it had something they wanted.
Gavin had taken a special interest in EthOS. She supposed it made sense. He’d been raised on Mars, where games and movies were far more commonplace than on Europa. He’d grown up with them. Mickey’d grown up with a spanner.
She still found EthOS a welcome addition to the crew, and she had to admit it was difficult to see her as a few billion lines of code enclosed within a five-inch wide data storage unit. She had a great sense of humor, insofar as a machine could have a sense of humor.
She may not have had the same computing power as a corporate vessel, but EthOS was capable of piloting the Ruin and plotting trajectories with the best of them. Plus, she had a sharp wit and a warmth to her, and Mickey wasn’t sure she could have handled being trapped in a floating tin can for longer than a few weeks with her two male co-workers without her to help her out.
On their last stop to the Combine, Gavin managed to locate a Creative Engine Module for her. It was basically a storytelling subroutine. It was expensive, but Walker signed off on it right away. Unfortunately, it required so much memory that at any given time, she could only handle a single virtual experience at a time, and Gavin was well-known for hogging her attention.
But with the added memory Mickey had picked up, she’d be able to handle at least three parallel virtual experiences on top of managing ship’s functions. Once installed, Mickey had very explicit plans to make use of her storytelling abilities.
Finally, the two of them reached the lower platform leading into the Customs area. Mickey followed Walker as he stepped up to the first agent.
The agent didn’t even look up at them. “Departure?” he asked.
“Yes sir,” Walker said.
He flipped open a scanner. “Provide your ship’s ISR,” he said, still not looking.
Walker tapped a few buttons on his watch and passed it over the scanner. The agent looked at his display for a moment, then for the first time made eye contact with Walker. “Independent Ship Gambler’s Ruin? Starline Galaxy, eh? Don’t see too many of those still around. I thought they’d been mostly scrapped. She run okay?”
“Better than one might expect,” he replied.
“Right.” He looked back at the display. “Says we just had a shipment authorized for you. Trade goods bound for the Jovian Combine. That sound right?”
He looked back up to Walker, then over to Mickey. His eyes fell on her pack. “Got anything to declare?”
“Just spare parts and computer equipment,” she said. “Want to see?”
The agent shrugged. “Nah,” he said. “You’re fine. Head back to C-22, there should be an agent there with your shipment.” He pressed a few buttons on his console, and the door next to him slid open. “Thank you for visiting Mars. Godspeed and safe trip.”
With a nod, the two of them walked past him into the loading bay. There were about a half-dozen people inside. Most were moving crates around the bay, some were yelling at each other. About seventy meters in, they came across section C-22. There, a bored looking customs agents sat on the floor, leaning up against a crate marked with a red Q, a heart displayed beneath it. He looked up at them.
“Gambler’s Ruin?” he asked.
Walker nodded. “That’s us,” he said.
“About time,” he said. “Hope you appreciate the kind of risk I had to take here.”
“Of course I do. I trust your payment is sufficient?”
The agent grunted as he stood up. “Whatever,” he said. “Let’s just get this done and over with.” The agent hoisted the elongated crate up on an automated dolly and tapped a few buttons on the console. He started walking toward the Ruin’s docking bay ahead of them. Walker and Mickey followed soon after. When they approached it, the agent pressed a thumb against the console, and the inner airlock opened with a swish.
He looked back to Walker and gestured toward the outer airlock door of the Ruin. “Your turn.”
Walker again turned his attention to his watch. “Pairing. One second,” he said, tapping in his password to connect to the Ruin’s WLAN. Once connected, he tapped a few more buttons. The outer door cracked open, and they stepped into the Ruin’s airlock. Walker reached for the handle of the final door and opened it.
Noise exploded out of the ship the moment the airlock cracked open, startling Mickey and causing Walker to look back at the customs agent sheepishly. He seemed unphased.
“EthOS!” he yelled. “What the hell is that?”
The noise, which bore a strange resemblance to what Mickey might have called music, if the bass hadn’t been so deep and the instruments entirely unrecognizable, dulled to a low noise. A moment later, the computer responded.
“Are you inquiring as to the music, or the mess you left on the floor of the cargo hold?” EthOS replied.
“The music, turn it off!”
“Everyone’s a critic,” EthOS replied. The music suddenly cut out. “For the record, you might want to talk to Gavin about that. It’s on his five-star list.”
Walker looked back to the customs agent. “Sorry,” he said.
“I ain’t paid to give a shit,” he said. He pushed forward with the cargo dolly, shoving past Mickey into the cargo hold of the Ruin. He found an open space near the center of the hold and lowered it to the ground as Walker and Mickey entered behind him.
“There,” the agent said, turning back to Walker. “I’ll leave it to you to strap it in. I’ll make sure you’re cleared to detach. Tell your friends that next time, the price is going up.”
Walker nodded. “It’ll be the first thing I mention to them the next time I see them.”
The agent grunted, then walked past the two of them. Mickey closed the airlock as he left and turned back to Walker. “Pleasant, isn’t he?”
The sound of footsteps echoed down the aft corridor, and it soon produced a rather disheveled-looking Gavin, sweat beading on his brow. “Sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting you back for–” he paused as his eyes lay on the cargo cannister. “Is that it?”
“You were expecting bigger?”
“I didn’t know what to expect. Raj wasn’t very forthcoming. What is it?”
“We’re not paid to know. All I know is he assured me it wouldn’t kill us.”
Gavin walked over to the container and examined it. He pressed his thumb against red Q. “It’s pretty stylized. Looks like the Q on a playing card. A red queen.” He ran his hand over the top of the crate. “It’s… covered in silica tiles,” he announced.
“So?” Walker asked.
“Silica tiles are exceedingly rare these days,” Mickey interjected. “We haven’t been able to make much of it since we lost the Earth. Hell, we used to use it for heat shields during reentry, but that’s kind of lost its purpose. This thing’s old.”
“Who’s it going to?” Gavin asked.
Walker flashed him a little smirk. “Don’t know. All I know is we’re bringing it to Saturn.”
Gavin laughed as though Walker had made a joke, then he realized he hadn’t. “Wait, what?”
“Turns out your friend is richer than you thought. He’s paying us enough to retire to drop some trash in Saturn’s orbit. We don’t ask. We do.”
Walker blinked. “Wait, Raj? He’s working class.”
“Not anymore, it appears. Five hundred, with two-fifty down.”
“Five hundred… thousand?”
“Jesus,” he commented, his gaze drifting off in shock.
“I second that,” Mickey added.
Gavin folded his arms. “It’s just weird,” he said. “Raj isn’t rich. At least he wasn’t. Where’d he get that kind of money from?”
“Maybe if you’d have come out,” Walker said,”you could have asked him and you wouldn’t have to wonder.”
Gavin just stroked the end of his goatee. “Probably not,” he said. “Raj kept to himself, mostly. Good man, though.”
“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I say we kick this port. Put some void behind us,” Walker announced. He turned toward the ceiling. “EthOS?”
“Yes, Walker?” EthOS replied.
“Request clearance for departure,” he ordered. “Prepare the engines as soon as you get it. And plot the best course for Saturn.”
“We don’t have enough water and goods to make the trip,” EthOS replied. “I suggest we stop at the Jovian Combine for replenishment.”
“Yeah, that’ll be fine,” he replied. “How long till we leave?”
“Icarus reports we are clear for detachment,” EthOS replied. “We can perform decoupling procedures as soon as everyone is strapped in. Mickey, did you pick up the memory you were talking about?”
“Got it right here, EthOS,” Mickey replied, holding up her pack. “And I got a patch for you.”
“Oooh,” EthOS replied. “If I had the ability to produce dopamine, I’d be excited. But until I’m a real girl, I’ll just have to fake it. I’m getting tired of Gavin’s pornographic adventures.”
Both Walker and Mickey whipped their heads toward Gavin.
“Seriously?” Mickey asked. “Is that why you’re all sweaty?”
Gavin blushed. “Hey,” he protested. “Don’t judge. It’s not often I’m alone in the ship.”
“You do it when the others are sleeping, too,” EthOS commented.
“EthOS,” Gavin warned. “Shut up.”