Javin dislodged the weightless panel easily from the ring. It floated away, revealing the dying star behind.
The visor on Javin’s helmet clicked into place automatically. Saria filled his view. She was a cauldron of fusion, roiling and sputtering from this distance. He was so close he could make out individual features: cooler spots of black on its surface, flares spinning outward like volcano plumes, pockets of light that looked like shiny seas of gold.
She wasn’t just a faraway point of light. From his spot here, floating only a few million units away, Javin saw she was alive.
A human-shaped electroid appeared, clamping onto the now free solar panel. Sunlight reflected off the panel’s blue surface as the electroid spun around. Silently it jetted away, carrying the part back to Javin’s ship.
The appearance of the electronic worker jolted Javin back to work. His hand went to his side and squeezed a joystick. Air jets within his space suit puffed, gently pushing him farther along the solar ring. After a moment he touched the controller again, canceling out his momentum in front of the next group of panels.
Each grouping comprised of nine rectangular panels in a three-by-three grid, facing the star to harvest its energy. The individual panels were twice as tall as Javin and would have weighed a hundred times as much if they weren’t orbiting in space. The side facing the sun was flawlessly smooth, but their backs held more function. Messy wires criss-crossed the surface, bundled together as they ran toward the center. That’s where the battery packs were, columns of fat cylinders. From there even thicker wires ran toward the grouping’s center panel, to the long laser that pointed backward, away from the star.
A dozen electroids were already at work on the three top panels, floating around like a swarm of Melisao flies.
Javin pulled himself along the left-center panel until he reached the inner edge. The wires weren’t continuous; they snapped together where they met at the center panel and could be disconnected. That way an individual panel could be replaced instead of an entire grouping. Or, in this case, dismantled one-by-one.
He unclipped one of the tools from his waist, gripping it in a gloved hand. Two bolts on either panel came away with ease, and Javin slipped them into his suit’s pocket. Now that the wires were loose from the panel he could unscrew the connectors. The wires were so thick he could hardly fit his hand around them, but they disconnected without problem.
With the power decoupled he could now safely dismantle the rest. He replaced the tool with another from his waist and found the clamps that connected one panel’s frame to the other. More bolts came away, these too big to fit in his pocket. He let them spin away in space; an electroid would scoop them up and take them back to the ship. He moved along the border, discarding bolts one by one until finally the panel was free. The view of Saria entranced him again for a moment, until he pulled himself to the next panel.
He found himself admiring the star more these days. Age stiffened Javin’s joints, turned his hair from brown to grey to white. His back hurt more each morning, and if it weren’t for all the weightless work he knew he’d walk with a hunch.
But not Saria. Red giants rage against their death. Once all hydrogen is exhausted from the core they begin fusing the element from the outer shell. They expand rapidly in this phase, increasing in luminosity many thousandfold, enveloping anything in the inner system. Saria’s expansion would destroy the ring of solar panels, and eventually the planet Melis itself.
The process was admirable; it was easy to see why religious cults worshipped the star. Some mornings Javin barely had the energy to get out of bed.
He didn’t need to be there. He’d long since passed the ranks that required such menial work. He was the Custodian of the Ancillary, the head engineer of the space station that orbited near the ring and relayed power back to Melis. His job was to oversee the dismantling of the solar ring, not unscrew every bolt himself. But he hated sitting around, giving orders to younger men and watching from afar. His hands may be wrinkled, but they were made for working, not pointing.
He enjoyed the solitude, too. His fifty years of maintaining the ring were mostly quiet, just him and one or two assistants on the Ancillary at any given time. Sometimes they went months or years without seeing anyone else.
Now the space station was a buzz of activity. Once the Exodus Fleet was announced dozens of workers arrived to assist in dismantling the ring. Men and women catalogued every bolt and panel, oversaw other electroid teams, began preparations to abandon the Ancillary itself. Javin’s life had been peaceful, and such a sudden disruption was jarring.
And so he floated along the ring, dismantling panels himself. By himself.
Inside his helmet was an electronic display, offset so it wouldn’t obscure his line-of-sight, where data was viewable at a glance: suit temperature and oxygen level, his position along the ring, a clock showing ancillary and Melisao time, numbers and information on each of the electroids around him. One electroid, SRE-100504, blinked red.
He looked around. It didn’t take long to find it. Most of the electroids jetted around with precise purpose, but one above him was erratic. Its arms were attached to a bolt connecting two panels together, but its body jerked back and forth, twisting.
A soft push and Javin floated upward.
He frowned when he reached it. It looked the same as all the others except for a blotch on one of its arms. The blemish was brown like rust, except he knew the carbon-metalloid material didn’t oxidize. It almost looked like dried blood.
These electroids had mechanical hands that could rotate freely to unscrew objects. They needed leverage though, either by clamping onto the panel with their other appendages or by using their propulsion jets to hold them in place. This electroid did neither, which caused its body to rotate helplessly while the arm and bolt remained still.
Javin sighed. It wasn’t the first electroid to malfunction since the new shipment arrived. He was supposed to discard malfunctioning workers and request new ones, but one fewer electroid on this section of the solar ring would slow them too much. And he hated wasting workers that could be fixed with a little effort. Gently, he touched the electroid with a gloved hand, feeling its spasms.
He glanced at the clock showing the Ancillary’s time. The flyby was less than an hour away, but it didn’t matter. He had no intention of returning just yet.
He pressed a circle-shaped button on the electroid’s back. It became still, and the glow from its torso dimmed. The robots were shaped like humans except for the lack of head; all processing was done within the square torso. Four screws and the maintenance plate came away, revealing the circuitry inside. From an external pocket on his suit Javin extended a data cable, connecting to an exposed port within.
He spoke a command and data scrolled across his helmet’s display, numbers and symbols and code. He said, “Diagnostics,” and new information appeared. He paused to skim the data. Another spoken command and a new screen of data.
It went on like this, delving deeper into the electroid’s information, until Javin identified the problem. The cable was too short for him to maneuver much, so he disconnected and pushed down to the electroid’s leg, the data cable dangling like a tentacle. More screws came away under his drill, another plate removed. Here the electroid’s left leg connected to the torso, with a series of wires and servos to control movement.
The problem was immediately obvious: one small pneumatic pump was disconnected, just as the diagnostic screen implied. It was now tangled around a series of wires, some of which were torn. The pump must have flailed around inside the metal housing.
The damage wasn’t too significant, he decided. From the left pocket of his suit Javin removed the wire repair kit: a small fusing laser, electric foam, and a coil of wire. Who’s over-prepared now? he thought with a smirk thinking of Beth, who teased him for carrying so many tools on routine jobs.
He counted fifteen wires that needed repair. Some were quick fixes, fused together and coated in the electric foam. Others required more work. One wire was ripped farther inside the torso, out of view. Javin removed another plate, then another, until he found the disconnect. He ran a new length of wire back through the housing, fused it at both ends to create a new connection, then removed the old wire.
He returned to the torso and checked the diagnostics, but the problem remained. It took two more trips back-and-forth before he discovered which wire was repaired incorrectly. He fused more wire, coated more foam.
Finally he reconnected the metal plates and powered-on the electroid. It immediately returned to its programmed task, clamping the fixed leg to the panel’s frame for leverage before unscrewing the bolt with ease.
Javin watched it work to make sure it had no other problems. It was satisfying to fix something. After decades maintaining the solar ring, dismantling it was depressing work.
It would be reconstructed once the Exodus Fleet arrived at the new system, but the thought didn’t comfort Javin. That would be years from now--he surely wouldn’t be there to see it. The first group of settlers was already chosen, and millions more waited for their chance. Families were prioritized, men and women who’d completed enough military tours to compose children together.
The Exodus Fleet needed engineers and workers too, but Javin wasn’t among those asked. Why take a stubborn old man who would probably die during the journey? There were plenty of young, amiable engineers. Javin was neither.
With effort he pushed the thought aside. There was no use daydreaming about an impossible future, or scenarios that could have been. He’d had a long life, was happy with how he’d lived it. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was as expendable as an electroid, given orders and put to work until he ceased functioning.
A notification blinked in his helmet’s display. “Proximity alarm, disable,” he said, annoyed. The newer suits had alarms for everything, as if a man couldn’t use his own eyes. The clock showed the Ancillary was close to its flyby; he didn’t need another reminder. Besides, there wasn’t much traffic out here. Peacekeeper patrols used to be more common to protect the ring from scavenging pirates, but most were reassigned to assist the Fleet, or to help occupy Praetar. Javin was very much alone out here, save for every eighth day when the Ancillary flew by.
“We’re coming your way, old man,” Beth’s voice was crisp in his helmet. “See you rock-side soon.”
“Sorry, Beth. I’m staying out here for another rotation.”
She laughed in his ear. “I don’t know why I’m surprised. You were supposed to return two rotations ago.” A pause. “Would a bottle of sweetwater change your mind? I’ve been saving it for when the work’s done, but stars save me, these workers are driving me mad. I need to drink something.”
Javin smiled to himself. “Next rotation. I promise.”
“That’s what you said last time,” she said. “You can’t stay out there forever.”
“Like hell I can’t. I’ll stay out here as long as I need to.”
“You’re fixing more electroids, aren’t you?”
“I’m making sure the job’s done right.”
“Just get a replacement from your ship,” she said.
“It’ll be broken too, Beth. These electroids up from Praetar are junk. I don’t have a choice.”
She sighed in his ear. “You’re more stubborn every day.” There was silence for a long moment, and then she said, “If the Admiral contacts me I’m not making any more excuses. You’re supposed to be in charge, not me. See you in a week, old man. And make sure you don’t get fried.”
Silence returned to his helmet.
Her voice always cheered his mood. Beth had worked with him on he Ancillary for nearly a decade since finishing her tours in the outer system. She oozed military demeanor, cold and formal and a stickler for protocol. It was in her blood. Calling him “old man” was about as affectionate as she got, but Javin liked that about her. She was what he would’ve wanted in a daughter, if he’d ever composed one.
He looked at the time: two minutes until his panel grouping discharged. He could disable it and discharge it manually later, but then he would need to enter his access codes, which would create a report. Javin would not suffer the paperwork.
He jetted himself vertically above the panels, stopping when he was a safe distance away. One electroid carried a wide protective shield as it followed him, holding it between Javin and the boiling star. This close to Saria he would be burned away if he remained exposed for more than a few minutes.
He spoke a command into his helmet. The remaining electroids left their work and followed, gliding upward in formation. They stopped in a tight cluster around him.
The Ancillary came into view. It was a shiny speck of light in the distance, reflecting the star’s light, growing larger with every second. It was rocky and bulbous, a hollowed-out asteroid filled with batteries and living quarters for Javin and the other workers. It was the only object in the star system with a retrograde orbit; while the planets, and solar ring, and other manmade stations orbited the star counter-clockwise, the Ancillary moved in the opposite direction. That alone was a masterful feat of engineering, once.
Presently it passed a decommissioned section of the ring but would fly by Javin’s grouping soon. He floated there with the electroids, huddled behind the protective shield, waiting as the space station grew larger.
There was no sound. He could see the panels vibrate below him. The laser extending from the grouping began to glow, first at its base then all along its length. Without warning it discharged, shooting a thick red beam toward the Ancillary. It was there instantly, the energy absorbed by a massive photovoltaic receptor that glowed blue on the side of the asteroid.
Javin smiled, proud. It was pleasing to watch, the purpose for which it was built.
The Ancillary continued along the ring, each panel grouping firing beams of energy one after the other. Javin imagined he could hear the sound from inside the station: the soft clunk, clunk, clunk, as the lasers hit and the batteries charged. The Ancillary would orbit like that, harvesting power from the panel groupings, until it aligned with Melis, and then the energy would be relayed to a station in orbit there. The solar ring alone provided enough power for the entire Empire. That too had been a proud triumph of engineering, once.
The concept of days didn’t really apply to an asteroid like the Ancillary, since it kept the same side facing Saria at all times, but Melisao timekeeping was still used across the Empire. The Ancillary orbited the star in ten days, and since the solar ring orbited in the opposite direction there was a flyby every eight. Javin wasn’t sure if he would be caught up on his work by then, but he could put Beth off again if he needed.
“The Emperor himself can come remove me if he wants,” he muttered. He chuckled to himself. Such casual blasphemy would have shocked Javin ten years ago. Now he didn’t care.
Javin spoke a command and the electroids returned to work. His own suit was low on power, so he supervised the electroids a few minutes longer before turning around. The shield-carrying electroid followed as Javin jetted away from the star, back to his ship.
The Carrion-class junker was shaped liked a hollowed-out semicircle, or a ring that was sliced in half and rested on its side. The glass bubble of the cockpit adorned one end of the ship like an eyeball, glowing with faint light. A cargo hold lay within the center of the circle, filled with thousands of solar panels. Various struts and tethers were mounted around it; the Carrion could salvage smaller craft, if needed.
The ship was grey and battered with age. To Javin’s eyes it was beautiful, efficient in its purpose.
The hold was only half full now--Javin could remain on the ring for weeks longer, if he wished. Stars, I could stay out here until I rot away, he mused. Twelve defensive turrets were mounted throughout the Carrion’s exterior; it would take quite a force for the Empire to remove him. It was nothing more than a fantasy, but just then it warmed his mood.
The maintenance airlock was at the opposite end of the ship as the cockpit, and it was there that Javin jetted. The wide door opened horizontally at his approach. He gripped the hand-holds at the door and pulled himself inside, settling his feet against the floor. “Maintenance airlock close,” he commanded. The door closed. He spoke more commands and his helmet display confirmed the room was pressurizing. When it was finished the gravity activated, hardening his feet to the floor. The suit became heavy on his shoulders. The shield electroid fell to the ground with a clang, then rose and marched to the corner, sat down in a ball, and deactivated itself.
Javin pushed a button and a smaller door opened to the interior.
The narrow prep room--more of a hallway, really--contained everything he needed for his work: the wall to the left held hundreds of small drawers filled with every size and shape of screw, bolt, or nut. An alcove in the wall served as a workbench, with an adjustable light and computer screen. On the right side of the room dozens of tools were strapped to the wall: drills and clippers, pliers and wrenches, voltmeters and electric fusers. Next to the tools were slots for two space suits; one hung there now, with battery and oxygen levels displayed on the wall above.
Javin removed his helmet and stripped his suit. Despite his weariness he took the time to empty each external pocket, returning the tools to the wall and the spare parts to their respective drawers. The new workers on the Ancillary carelessly left equipment strewn about, but Javin wouldn’t suffer such disarray on his own ship.
He returned his suit to its slot, clipping the pack that held its power and oxygen into the recharging port. He eyed the backup suit, fully-powered and ready to go. The malfunctioning electroids were slowing things down. He didn’t have to enter progress data into the computer to know he was behind schedule.
He shook his head. One of the gifts of old age was keen self-awareness, and Javin knew he was too tired to go back out. The electroids would have to function adequately until he got some sleep.
And he was indeed tired; after the weightlessness of space, simply walking on his feet was exhausting. Daily exercise was still mandated for all workers, but Javin had long ago reprogrammed the censors to mark his exercise as complete each day. Beth would scold him if she knew; she kept to her own routine religiously. Javin couldn’t waste any more time, though. And besides, working on the solar ring was exercise enough.
His knees started stiffening. Maybe if I rested for just a few minutes...
But his feet carried him past the room that held his bed. Down the curving hallway he walked, knees aching, until he reached the end of the semicircle. There was a whir of air as the cockpit door opened.
Most ships were built with the cockpit as the prime room, but on the Carrion it was an afterthought, crammed on the end in what little space remained. A single chair faced the bubble-shaped window, clear computer screens and electronics crowding around it. Javin ducked to avoid hitting his head as he crawled into the seat. He had about as much room as he did inside his space suit.
The screen to his left showed his progress: two hundred and forty panels removed that shift, sixteen hundred since the last Ancillary pass. They needed to average three hundred per day, but the electroids were giving him trouble. Another screen displayed the progress of the other dismantling teams scattered along the ring. All of them appeared to be on schedule. One ship, Hugo’s, was even ahead of his target number.
Hugo probably doesn’t have to deal with shoddy Praetari electroids, Javin thought with a frown. But that excuse wouldn’t appease the Emperor.
It wouldn’t matter, anyways. Excuses were for the lazy, and Javin refused to make them. He had a job to do.
Javin woke early the next morning, eager to get to work. He avoided the cockpit; he didn’t care to be reminded that he was behind schedule. The computer in the ship’s common room blinked; a message waited. He ate a quick breakfast of coffee and whatever the food station dispensed while he read:
Javin, I’m worried about you. It’s not your fault the dismantling is behind schedule. You’re only one man, you can’t do it all yourself. And I need you here on the Ancillary. These workers are all idiots. -Beth
He chuckled, picturing Beth screaming at the new workers and throwing equipment around the asteroid. Like Javin she hated managing people, preferring to do the work herself. And the workers that had arrived on the Ancillary to assist in the dismantling were indeed idiots. Javin had several particularly incompetent men removed when the work first began, but they were replaced with engineers that were even more helpless. It was enough to drive a man mad. Or enough to drive him to solitude along the solar ring.
In the prep room he crawled into his suit, filling the pockets with tools and spare parts. The release of gravity in the maintenance airlock was a welcome relief on his legs, still sore from the previous shift.
He collected his thoughts as his suit thrusters pushed him toward the solar ring. Dutifully, the shield electroid ran in front of him, blocking his view of Saria. They weren’t very far behind schedule. If they dismantled thirty extra panels per day before the Ancillary returned he would be back on track. That was only a few extra hours of work each shift. Certainly feasible. He could even work more than that for the first few days, to build a buffer in case there were any problems.
As if in protest, a yawn escaped his chest.
Beth was right, though. He couldn’t stay out here forever. As much as he enjoyed the manual work he had to admit it was exhausting. When he was younger Javin could work double shifts and never feel a thing. One time, decades ago, a panel grouping became misaligned in a solar storm. Its burst of energy clipped the Ancillary, thankfully only destroying an unused section of rock. Javin worked three days straight stopping only to switch suits and fill his stomach, to ensure its laser didn’t miss the Ancillary’s photovoltaic receptor again.
Now just the thought of working that long made his shoulders ache. No, as much as he enjoyed the solitude he would need to leave this to the younger workers. But he would get things back on track first. After this rotation, he decided. Then I’ll return to relieve Beth.
He groaned when he reached the solar ring.
The swarm of electroids was a mess. One was missing an arm, floating in small circles above the grouping, confused. Javin spotted its appendage nearby, clamped onto a solar panel, its exposed wires dangling free. A jumbled ball of parts floated nearby. As Javin approached he realized it was three electroids tangled together, their legs bent at odd angles and their fingers clamped onto one-another. Metal components, from the electroids or panels or whatever else, drifted all around.
The remaining functional electroids all waited above the panel grouping, organized in a neat line.
The panel grouping itself was partially dismantled: the three panels of the left column were already removed, but the top two floated at awkward angles. Now Javin was close enough to see the problem: their frames were unscrewed from the bordering panels, but the thick wires had not been disconnected, and those were from what the panels now dangled. One panel was twisted enough that the photovoltaic receptors faced Javin instead of the sun. Jets of air fired every few seconds from the center panel, near the laser; the grouping was adjusting itself to stay in alignment, countering the flailing momentum of the loose pieces.
The list of electroids and their data filled his helmet display as he approached. One displayed a catastrophic failure--that would be the armless one, Javin thought--and three more showed a less critical malfunction. The other eight were all fine, having completed their tasks without issue. They would not proceed to the next panel until the broken electroids did their jobs.
Javin woke up expecting one hundred additional panels to be dismantled. Instead they hadn’t finished ten.
So much for catching up, he thought.
He turned to the armless electroid; it probably wouldn’t get in the way, but he wanted to make sure it didn’t do anything unpredictable while he fixed everything else. “S-R-E-one-zero-zero-five-zero-four, full system shutdown,” he spoke into his helmet, but the electroid continued to propel itself in a small circle.
A tether was coiled inside Javin’s pack; he reached back to uncoil it. He would need to deactivate the electroid manually. Javin jetted to the right-center panel, still secured to the center. He clipped the end of the tether to the frame. He let out more slack from the coil, estimating the distance to the electroid, until he thought he had enough.
Softly, he jetted toward SRE-100504. Its circular path was maybe ten feet in diameter. Javin’s hand moved on the control stick at his side, adjusting his path. The closer he got the faster it seemed the electroid moved. Suddenly it seemed very unsafe. The tether would keep him from being knocked away from the grouping, but if the electroid smashed into his helmet…
It was close now. Two more circles and it would be within reach. One more.
He reached out. The electroid slammed into his outstretched arms, spinning Javin backward. His fingers tightened around something, and the electroid spun with him. There was a jolt as he reached the end of his tether, the whiplash flailing through his arm. Somehow he managed to keep his grip on the robot. The tether spun them in an arc around the grouping. Saria came into view, blinding, until his helmet tinted. Shadow returned as the shield electroid tried to follow his path.
The broken electroid thrashed in his hand now, trying to jet back to its previous place. Javin grabbed it with his other hand and pulled it to his chest. Its propulsion fired at his helmet, spraying white mist across the glass. He let go with one hand and fumbled around, feeling for the kill switch on the electroid’s back. It twisted away from him like a child. He pulled it close again. His arms ached from the effort of pulling against the jets. Vaguely, he was aware of the panel grouping to his left, drifting by. Soon the tether would wrap around the panels and send them crashing into it.
A button depressed under his finger; the electroid’s movement ceased. With the jets no longer firing his sight returned.
The tether had indeed carried them in a wide arc around the grouping, but he had time. After getting his bearings he fired his jets, cancelling out their momentum, leaving them floating in place. Slack returned to the tether. The grouping’s center panel fired its own propulsion jets, adjusting for the pull of the tether, keeping them aligned with the rest of the solar ring.
Javin must have been holding his breath--he suddenly felt light-headed. He filled his lungs a few times until he felt more relaxed.
He let go of the armless electroid. It floated limply in front of him. He saw a brown smear on the arm that remained, and realized it was the same electroid he’d fixed yesterday. More time he’d wasted.
He shook his head. I better not tell Beth, or she’ll never let me hear the end of it. He knew he would, though. The story would make her laugh. Javin would have laughed himself if he weren’t so frustrated and tired.
The jumbled ball of electroids was easier to untangle; they didn’t fight him, and gently returned to their work once free. Still, he didn’t trust them, not until he figured out what caused the tangle in the first place. He disabled them and pulled them close, hugging all three to his chest. I’ll retrieve the armless one later. He turned himself around and began jetting back to the ship.
They drifted into the maintenance airlock, but he didn’t pressurize it immediately. Instead he floated the electroids to a storage alcove against the side wall, shoving them inside. Only then did he close the maintenance bay and activate internal pressure. The electroids clattered inside the alcove as the gravity engaged.
The replacement electroids hung on the opposite wall, but first Javin went to the prep room. His suit’s battery was half-drained, and he wanted to go ahead and switch with the spare one so he could stay out longer. He stripped and was in the new suit within minutes. He filled his pockets with tools and spare parts, leaving the first suit crumpled on the ground.
Six spare electroids hung from the wall in the maintenance airlock. A swarm of twelve was most efficient for dismantling the panels; any more and the workers disrupted one-another, and were more likely to slow the work down than speed it up.
Javin activated four. The headless, artificial beings hummed to life and stepped forward, metal feet clanging on metal floor. Each status appeared in his helmet display. They looked fine, but they were Praetari-manufactured like the others. However, they were all he had to work with until he returned to the Ancillary. He would complain about it then.
Back at the solar ring the new electroids fell into alignment easily; two began unfastening bolts, one collected the loose bolts and parts that drifted around the grouping, and the last one grabbed a floating panel and jetted it back to the ship. The remaining eight resumed their work. The swarm programming was thorough when there were no mechanical problems. He watched them in their dance, jetting back and forth along the panels.
There was an insect back on Melisao that fed on dead animals; the small, hard-shelled things would arrive at a dead body in a swarm, picking every bit of flesh off of an animal until only clean bones remained. The electroids reminded him of that insect, picking apart the panels piece by piece. Everything was orderly, every electroid had its job. It was satisfying to see. Javin liked when things worked the way they should.
He frowned at SRE-100504, the armless electroid floating off to the side. One malfunction out of a thousand was normal by Melisao standards, but several in one swarm? The Empire isn’t what it was, he thought. Precision and efficiency were valued above all else when Javin was young. The Empire was a machine, finely-crafted and oiled to perfection. It thrived on such efficiency for thousands of years.
Now everyone was sloppy in their rush to leave the system. If simple electroids here at the solar ring were having problems, how did the Exodus Fleet fare? It occurred to him that it might be a good thing he was too old for an Exodus permit.
Suddenly, a man’s voice echoed hollow in his helmet.
“Custodian Javin. Hello.”
For a long moment Javin did not move. The Ancillary should be out of communications range, the line-of-sight passing too close to Saria. His sensors would have notified him if a ship was near. Was it a prank from Beth, some recording sent to his ship and programmed to play after they were gone? He strained his ears. He wondered if he’d imagined it.
“Javin, let me know if you can hear me, please.” The man was formal, polite.
“Who is this?”
“Ahh, good,” the man said, “Elliot told me I had the right channel. Javin, we would like you to come with us, please.”
It still sounded too unnatural, like some programmed recording. “Beth, I don’t know what this is but--”
The voice cut him off. “Beth cannot help you now. We want to speak with you, nothing more. My men will come to you presently, but first I want to make sure you will not resist.”
He turned and looked away from the ring, but saw nothing except his own ship among the black. It didn’t make sense. The communication was on a short-range channel, but there was nothing around. His proximity sensor would have--
The proximity alarm was off. He’d turned it off when the Ancillary went by.
“Proximity alarm, enable.”
His helmet display went red. The list of electroids was replaced by a list of ships and their distance; his own Carrion showed at the top, but now there were three more below it, flashing: a Melisao frigate, and two smaller Needle craft. They had no official Empire credentials.
Their distances ticked down--they were coming closer.
He looked around again, and a glint of sunlight drew his attention: there they were, back behind his own ship in the distance. They were flying around the Carrion, one Needle on either side. He didn’t see the third ship.
“Javin, we only want to speak with you.”
He knew that was a lie. There was only one reason three ships would travel so close to Saria, in the vast emptiness of the inner system. The same reason the Empire was dismantling the solar ring instead of leaving it behind.
These men are pirates, here to take my ship and the panels inside.
His hand went to the thrust control at his side. The stars blurred as Javin shot toward his ship.
“My men are going to come outside to meet you. Please acknowledge my request.”
Javin ignored the voice. He had eyes only for his own ship, which was now flanked by the two smaller craft. The velocity warning blinked in his helmet, but he flew faster, still pushing the joystick forward. If they wanted to speak with him it was only to disable the ship’s defenses. But Javin had not activated any of them.
His ship grew larger. The two Needles were stopped. A pair of men in shabby-looking space suits exited the left, jetting toward the Carrion. He couldn’t see if they were armed.
He was close, but didn’t slow. He spoke a command and the maintenance airlock opened ahead of him. The men to his left were still far away but he didn’t want to take any chances. He used his suit to twist himself around, until he was flying backwards. He couldn’t see where he was going, but it was the only way. His heart pounded. He waited, resisting the urge to slow down.
When the doorway of the airlock appeared at the edges of his vision he fired his thrusters. “Maintenance airlock, close!” he screamed.
The jets slowed him but he still slammed into the inner wall, hard enough to knock the air from his lungs. He heard a crack, and his vision blurred. When it returned he saw more alerts in his helmet. He ignored them. It sounded like the man was speaking in his helmet. He wasn’t sure because of the pressure building in his ears. His skin tingled. He couldn’t catch his breath enough to speak commands.
He grabbed the wall and turned himself. There was the computer, next to the door. His vision was starting to darken at the edges. He needed to type the code twice before the room finally pressurized, crumpling him to the floor as gravity engaged. His helmet came off and rolled away. He laid there with his cheek against the metal, sucking in the cool air.