Montez unclenched her hands from the ship’s controls and rolled her shoulders back, stretching muscles stiff from hours of careful maneuvering. Littlefoot drifted in the dark side of a small carbonaceous asteroid, the nearest object for a hundred thousand miles. The rock was one of millions in the asteroid belt Styx, the scrapyard of the Luxar System.
On the live map between Montez and her copilot Crane, Styx was a river of tumbling rocks ranging in size from planetoids to boulders to dust. To any far-eyed observer from the Core, Littlefoot was just another pebble tumbling in the current—it had been camouflaged as just another pitch-black asteroid, stripped down, and modified for long-distance spaceflights.
“Well, here we are,” she said.
“Oh joy—another big useless rock.” Crane smacked his harness release and the restraints retracted into the seat. He spun his chair around to plop his boots up onto the console projecting the map. A chunk of the map vanished where his boots blocked the light. “All we ever find out here is ice.”
Montez shoved the other pilot’s feet off the console. “Shut up, Crane. Ice is the only thing keeping us paid right now.”
“Ain’t a reflection on your skills, just our recent string of bad luck.”
“You’re old-fashioned, man. No such thing as luck.” At just over five feet, Montez felt comfortable in the confines of the tiny craft despite its size—Littlefoot was essentially a cockpit attached to an airlock.
With practiced fingers, Montez configured the ship’s scanners to crawl the asteroid. A topographical map sketched into place above the console. As the map gathered data it updated instantly, sharpening to provide more detail, and flagging any accessible resources. Montez glanced across the display, dismissing most of it as usual. The asteroid had a core of ice and a crust of black sand, dust, and rock, but little else.
“If you don’t believe in luck you’re in the wrong line of work.” Crane plucked an asteroid from Styx on the display, inspected it like he’d dug it from his nose, and tossed it back. It snapped into place with the rest.
“Never said I don’t believe. I said there’s no such thing.” Montez gestured at the map. “Maybe something’s out there, maybe not. Kasim says yeah this time, but hey—he’s been wrong before. How many empty rocks we been sent out to, man?”
Crane scowled. “And we might get lucky, that’s what I’m saying—”
The display chirped an alert and highlighted an object tucked away inside the asteroid. A marker over the object blinked patiently.
“Cryo pod,” Montez said, snagging the object and inspecting it. “Older model. Fifty-plus years for sure. That thing’s from before the war.”
“Told you!” Crane pumped a fist in the air. “I’m gettin’ my suit.”
The wiry copilot moved to the back of the ship towards their sleeping quarters, which doubled as nullsuit storage. Crane’s armored suit hung in the back of the cramped space like a corpse, its helmet slumping down against the chestpiece, lifeless. He pulled out the near-weightless gear and equipped one piece onto himself at a time. The mechanical armor had enough plating to take a heavy beating and protect from radiation, but its nullsteel coating rendered him almost massless. In a nullsuit, gravity didn’t exist.
Crane and Montez had found dozens of pods over the years on jobs for Kasim, but most were damaged—usually meaning the occupant was dead—or empty. Still valuable for parts, but it was always better to find a live one. They got paid more if it worked. Kasim usually told them what they were after—scrap, weapons, whatever—but this time he wouldn’t tell them what exactly it was they were looking for. He’d sent them out on what he called a hunch.
Depending on its condition, a cryo pod that old might make for quite the payday—no wonder Kasim kept his mouth shut. He was an annoying little prankster at times, but with a haul like this his discretion made sense. The thing could be a relic from the Interstellar War fifty years back. After the rebels were forced out of the Core, they seeded the asteroid belt with stashes and hidden bases. When the old Core Fleet came to clean the rebels out, they left a lot behind for freelance scrappers like Crane and Montez.
“Matching... locked,” Montez said.
Crane opened the inner airlock door and stepped inside. Vents sucked the air from the room back into the ship’s reserves. “Check.”
“Green,” Montez confirmed. “Pressure equalized.”
Crane hopped back and forth, balled his fists, and wiggled his fingers to test the suit’s dexterity. Responsive, agile. Same as always. He took a deep breath of the suit’s too-clean air and exhaled. On the other side of the door waited the unforgiving embrace of the void. Nothing between him and death but the wonders of technology.
“You got me tethered?”
“Tethers green,” Montez said.
Crane leaned forward and a gravity tether on the ceiling pulsed a gentle tug on each of his suit’s three rear nodes: one on each shoulder blade and another on the base of his spine. It was an odd sensation, like temporarily falling in the direction of the tether. He lifted each heel—two nodes per boot. He turned around and held his hands up for the nodes on his palms. Gravity tethers were his lifelines out in zee.
“Alright, you got me. Here we go,” he said.
He opened the outer door and pushed it open. The ship was just a few dozen feet from the asteroid’s surface. Crane grabbed the edges of the airlock with both hands and gently pulled himself through in a practiced motion. For a moment his stomach fluttered as he drifted between the ship and the asteroid. He ignored it, keeping his body taut and focused. Even the slightest movement in zee could put him off course. The coal-black surface took up his entire field of view. He resisted the urge to look away as he approached.
Crane felt Littlefoot’s gravity tethers slow him down as he twisted in space to land feet first. Focused pulses from nodes encircling the outside of the airlock slightly corrected his trajectory and he made a feather-light landing, right on target. His boots sunk into the crunchy black ice-sand, and Crane took a moment to get his bearings.
He stood on the crest of a dune which overlooked a steep ravine. Littlefoot hovered above him with its floodlights pointed into the chasm. Crane hopped off the dune with a light push and floated to a solid rock outcropping halfway to the bottom, using his palm nodes to pull himself gently toward the rock.
The cryo pod looked like it was buried underneath an overhang on the opposite side of the ravine. Probably a crash site, then—meaning the pod was likely another junker. There went his fantasies of luxury. Still, maybe they’d be able to pawn it off on some collector. Kasim knew how to polish a turd until it shined like a gem.
Another hop and glide, and Crane sailed over to the other side of the ravine. He landed on target and crouched in front of the overhang, blinked away his display lenses’ overlay, and activated the lights on his helmet, revealing the entrance to a cave. No sign of impact. Seemed like someone must have tucked it away.
Crane blinked again and the overlay came back, a green thread of light showing him the way to the cryo tube inside the cave. He grabbed onto a chunk of rock and began to work his way inside on his belly, following the path laid out for him. If not for the computer’s assistance he would have missed it—a thick layer of black dust coated the whole thing, making it almost invisible.
“Got ya,” he said.
“Can you get it out?” Montez asked.
“Maybe. Could be wedged in.”
“Gonna fit inside here?”
“Heh. Ain’t the first time I been asked.”
“Shut up, Crane.”
He laughed and swept a hand across the pod’s surface. Dust swirled into a cloud, and through it he saw glass, a smoky blue-green that obscured the pod’s contents. He pulled himself around to inspect the rest of it. Intact. No leaks. The thing had definitely been maneuvered into the crevice instead of crashing into the asteroid as he’d assumed.
“It’ll fit,” he said. “It’s a big one, though. Not sure how the damn thing got down here. Older model for sure. You gettin’ any readings inside? Looks like it’s in pretty good shape.”
“I can only see outside, not inside.” Impatient, Montez snapped, “Bring it in so we can get out of here.”
“Fine, fine. Just get a tether on it.”
“Waiting on you.”
With some difficulty, Crane managed to move the pod out of the crevice without damaging it. He braced himself against a large rock near the cave’s entrance and shoved the pod out in front of him, sending it drifting toward Littlefoot. Gravity tethers grabbed hold of the pod as soon as it was in range and pulled it smoothly into the ship’s open airlock.
Crane steadied himself on the asteroid, gauged his trajectory, and pushed off. The tethers guided him like welcoming arms back into the airlock, grabbing the nodes on his suit to pull him in. There was just enough room for him to squeeze in beside the cryo pod. The door sealed behind him and the airlock pressurized. Decontamination jets blasted the black dust off himself and the pod while vents sucked it out of the room and spit it back outside.
“Let’s bring it on home,” Montez said.
The inner airlock door hissed open. Crane stepped inside and removed his helmet after the door shut behind him. He unsuited and stowed his armor, then got into his seat and strapped in next to Montez.
She looked over at her partner. “Nav’s set.”
“Move your ass then,” replied Crane.
She guided the ship away from the asteroid and settled into their plotted trajectory, back the way they had just come. The ship thrummed with power, and a high-pitched whine sounded a moment before it pushed.
It would be four days until they met up with their ticket home—a gate disguised as an asteroid, hurtling along like any other hunk of space rock. Another drop in the storm.
“You taking first watch or me?”
“Me,” Crane said. “Being out in zee always keeps me up awhile.”
Montez unstrapped and moved to their sleeping quarters. As she slid into the tiny weightless room exhaustion took hold of her. She belted herself in across from her nullsuit and fell asleep almost instantly. Three, four hours’ rest and she’d be set. For a time, she drifted dreamless through the void with their cargo.
“Montez, we got trouble,” called Crane from the front of the craft.
Montez was there in a flash. “Pirates? Core Fleet?”
“Too far out to tell. They ain’t seen us.”
“Let’s keep it that way.”
Montez could only hope they didn’t get spotted. They’d already used most of the ship’s power after their voyage, they had no weapons, and any half-decent ship could easily outpace them. Montez’s only tools for survival were Littlefoot’s faint energy signature, its asteroid disguise, and its extended-range sensors—they could see the enemy well before the enemy saw them.
The map showed a large flashing sphere around the enemy ship—its sensor range. Montez felt her stomach twist into a cold steel knot. The other ship’s long-range sensors were active, crawling constantly as they moved—pirates didn’t need to hide, they were always on the hunt. If it was a Core ship they might be looking at some fines and maybe jail time, but pirates rarely took prisoners.
“Kill the power,” she said.
“What? If they really are sniffin’ around that leaves us helpless.” Crane jabbed a finger at the display, where the other ship traveled perpendicular to their course. Littlefoot stuck to the center of the asteroid belt, following its curve, and the other ship was headed across it, toward the far edge of the system. “Look, they ain’t even close. Just going across. We’ll be fine.”
“Well slow down at least,” Montez insisted.
“Really, Montez? Use your brain—we slow down and they know we ain’t just some other rock out here.”
Panic rising in her chest, Montez darted to her locker and ripped out her suit. Hers was just a nullsuit, not armored like Crane’s, but it would protect her from vacuum if it came to that. Crane guffawed when he saw her putting it on. He switched on their comm channel.
“Montez, relax. We’re gonna be fine,” he said.
“Gotta check the cargo.”
“Don’t know. Call me paranoid.”
Montez snapped her helmet in place, moved to the airlock, and spun the wheel around to open the door. She swung it open and stepped through, sealed it behind her. The cryo pod was about the size of a couch, and its smoky blue-green glass was encased in a round cobalt blue frame. It took up most of the length of the airlock, leaving only a little room to squeeze by on one side.
Montez deactivated the gravity plate in the airlock’s floor. She grabbed the pod by the edges, guiding it carefully with the assistance of the gravity tethers to the center of the confined space. When she had it stationary she rotated it onto its back.
The base of the pod was flat, with a manual control panel recessed into the corner nearest her. She motioned for the grav tethers to hold the pod in place while she pried open the panel. Inside she found a series of switches. Next to each was a label etched into the metal, but some had been crudely taped over, apparently reassigned—on one she read the scrawled block letters, PWR. She touched the switch but didn’t move it from the ON position. No telling if that was even right.
“How we doing Crane?”
“Well, we ain’t exactly in the clear yet, but they’re staying course. You want my bet it’s just a Core drone on patrol. One minute and we’re good. I’m telling you, Montez—”
She muted his comms and shook her head. Her heart jumped to her throat and she swallowed painfully. She brought up a mini-map on a corner of her display lens and watched the other ship approach. It kept getting closer and closer, but Littlefoot’s tiny signature prevented them from being picked up.
She’d even nixed the standard deep inspection of cargo by the ship’s computer to avoid triggering any response from the pod before getting it home. Some models would auto-wave any nearby ship—under the right circumstances, something that could save a life. In this case, it threatened the opposite.
As the other ship got nearer, she could see they would clearly pass by with a healthy buffer. Her pounding heart slowed. Montez suddenly felt uncomfortably warm in her nullsuit despite the temperature regulation. She opened her comms back up.
“Shut up,” she hissed at Crane before he could say anything. “I don’t need your shit.”
Crane chuckled, but held his tongue. She deactivated the tethers and righted the cryo pod before turning the gravity back on. It settled gently onto the floor as the grav plate whummed to life. As Montez turned the wheel for the interior airlock door, she burned with embarrassment at her reaction.
She’d dodged dozens of patrols before without breaking a sweat, even enjoying the thrill of it—and yet here she was, trembling, she realized as she removed her helmet. Weak.
“Your turn on watch anyway,” Crane said as he slid past. “Enjoy.”
Montez said nothing. She unsuited, took her seat at the helm, and busied herself with rechecking their route. Six hours out. They’d continue heading against the flow of Styx until they found their ticket home—one of the many hidden gates in the belt that made up their secret travel network through the Luxar system.
“Alright, we’re synced,” Montez said.
Littlefoot trailed an asteroid barely twice the craft’s size. It was entirely indistinguishable from the rest of Styx’s endless tumbling rocks—but according to Littlefoot, it was the location a gate that led to the asteroid base Montez and her fellow smugglers fondly called Home. The map had set a marker for the gate on the asteroid’s dark side. Montez guided them to the flagged area, but aside from the marker she saw nothing.
“You sure we got the right one?” Crane asked. “It’s pretty small.”
“You tell that to all the girls?”
“Nice. Real nice. Kinda just looks like more space rock to me.”
“Kinda the point?” Montez said.
“So… what, it’s invisible?”
Montez chewed her lip. “I don’t know. It’s new, I haven’t used this one yet. Kasim said it would be hard to see. Wrinkly bastard’s always playing games with us.”
She brought them closer, with the nose of the ship pointed toward the crater. Their display lenses showed them a friendly green outline in a circle where it indicated Littlefoot should move through. Montez disabled her display. All she saw was dark, still dust under the ship’s floodlights. She exchanged glances with Crane.
“Maybe somebody tagged the wrong one,” Crane suggested.
“This has to be it,” she said, re-enabling the display. It showed a ghostly green Littlefoot accelerate forward into the center of the glowing circle, through the asteroid’s surface, which seemed to slide past the ship. The ghost slowed, stopped, and then vanished after it demonstrated the gate’s doors shutting. For a moment, Montez watched it repeat with dopey confusion. But then it clicked—she understood how they did it, and with an astonished laugh she guided Littlefoot forward.
“What are you doing?” Crane said, panicked.
Montez cackled at his bewilderment. “Only one way to find out!”
“This is not okay! This is not okay!”
Crane scrambled over his chair to their lockers and yanked his suit out as they approached impact with the crater. He smacked himself in the face with his helmet as he struggled to get it on. Montez howled with laughter, and they puffed through the thick layer of asteroid dust that hid the gate’s opening. A gravity field parted the covering like a curtain for them as they moved into the hidden entrance and molded it back to its original state after they’d gone through. The gate doors slid shut, the field deactivated, and the black dust settled like a fresh grave.
Montez howled with laughter as Littlefoot parked itself inside the hangar, nearly in hysterics as she wiped tears from her eyes. “Just the look on your face! I’ll send you the vid later. I’m showing Kasim and everybody else. This is classic, man.”
Crane struggled past the cryo pod in Littlefoot’s airlock with a bloody wad of gauze clamped over his nose. “Oh yeah, you’re very funny, Montez. You can stop giggling like a damn child now. I think it’s broken.”
Crane stomped down the stairs to the hangar floor. Montez continued snickering to herself, watching from behind the bulky cryo pod as Crane hurried off to medical. Time to bring their haul to Kasim.
Big sucker—she’d need a couple of floaters for sure. Littlefoot’s grav tethers could help her move the pod out onto the hangar floor, but she’d need some portable assistance to get any farther. She slid past the pod into the hangar bay, securing Littlefoot’s airlock door behind her.
As she walked down the ramp she noticed three HomeSec troops in armored black nullsuits marching her way, each with a beam rifle slung over a shoulder. When she reached the ground she retracted Littlefoot’s ramp. The armors got close enough that she recognized the badge on the one in the lead.
“Something wrong, Finch?” she called. “I didn’t ask for HomeSec.”
“Lieutenant Finch,” he corrected her through his suit’s speakers. “We’re here to take your cargo. You’ll be compensated later.”
“I’m being compensated to take my cargo to Kasim,” she said.
Finch towered over her in his glossy black armor, forcing her to look straight up at him or take a step back. She stood her ground and glared.
“This is over your head,” Finch said with a smile as he reached past her for the ramp controls. He motioned for his subordinates to enter the ship. “Cover it up first.”