1: A Fistful of Spoons
With a brilliant flash of pure, white light, Matilda slowed from her Faster-Than-Light sprint to a lazy canter in the void between stars. She was a small mount. Built for one, with a curved, horseshoe-shaped body, she was less than a quarter the size of the celerity drive coaches taking settlers out to the Cygnus X colonies. But she served the drifter well.
The three rings of her engine gimbal – housed within the center of the horseshoe - slowed and locked into their flat, standby position. The young woman at the yoke reins leaned back in her saddle and stretched. The drifter raked her fingers through her dark, curly hair and tied it back into a bushy ponytail.
“Hey, hermana, why’d we stop? We aren’t there yet,” Tuco called from behind her.
Matilda forced air through her ventilation system, effectively imitating a series of dissatisfied grunts. The drifter rolled her dark eyes and patted the controls affectionately. “I know, girl. I know.” Then, to her passenger, “Tilly needs a break. We’ve been riding her too hard; I don’t want to bake ’er.” She unhooked her spurred boots from Tilly’s yaw stirrups and slid from the saddle.
She stepped into the engine room without needing to duck as she crossed through the low hatch and crossed her arms over the chest of her old and patched flight suit. The dusty pink stains on her left glove stood out against the faded green of the flight suit. “Alright Tuco, let’s have it. Why have you dragged me all the way out here? What’s at these coordinates?”
Tuco was a small, sweaty, middle-aged man with an unkempt goatee and a mop of greasy black hair. He wore his pistol, an old Cepheid 2248, in a cross-draw holster at his belt buckle. A bandolier of coolant capsules was slung across his barrel chest. A long, black, hooded duster covered his overweight frame as he stood from Tilly’s guest bunk, nestled in the corner of the small engine room. The two had worked together before, and although she didn’t always like Tuco’s methods, she always got her fair share. “The Hippotes System. It’s a red giant with only one world. A gas ball called Aeolus.”
“Great,” she rolled her eyes, “what’s there?” Tuco always had a hard time getting to the point. From one of her flight suit’s many pockets she pulled a small rectangular tin. She popped it open, and the deep, earthy aroma of ground tobacco filled the small engine room.
“Las Ráfagas Outpost. It’s a rubidium-87 mining and refinement depot inside the gas giant’s atmo. It supplies fuel to all the Cygnus Trail waystations this side of the Rift.”
“I was hoping you’d say that,” she said with some visible relief as she rolled a pair of cigars with fresh leaves from her tin. “The San Juan-Paul fuel clerk mentioned it. Said they never got their last Rb-87 shipment from Las Ráfagas and couldn’t top me up. Now Tilly’s running low. It’s a bounty job I take it?” She lit both cigars with the flick of an old silver lighter and handed one to Tuco.
“Si,” he grunted. Tuco took the cigar and shuffled over to a window to peer out into the void. “Bounty-head’s a rob.” The environmental control console beeped gently before exhaust fans in the floor and ceiling spun up and whisked the acrid smoke away.
She frowned and took a long drag. “A rob? Don’t tell me this is a job for the copperheads.”
“Hey.” Tuco looked up from his window and glanced around the messy engine room for an ashtray. “It may not be for me to say, hermana, but it looks like you’re almost down to the blanket around here. Ain’t that why you took the job? Just take the spoons and be glad for it. Besides, no, it ain’t for the CCO. But the bounty was posted by a family that lives in the Orion Colonies, si.” He turned back to the window.
He was anxious about something and she didn’t like it. She narrowed her eyes and handed him a dusty ceramic bowl littered with old cigar butts. “What aren’t you telling me Tuco?”
This time he couldn’t even be bothered to tear his eyes from the window. “Nada, hermana. Besides, you know the deal.”
She sighed and nodded at the back of his head.
He was right. This was how they operated. Tuco showed up with a job and she provided the transport. That way there could be no double-cross. The details he had already given her were more than she usually got. He was also right about the state of her financial situation. Credit spoons meant fuel for Tilly, and a full fuel cell meant freedom. Everything else that wasn’t helping her stay alive and stay free was just dust in the void.
And this was a big payday. A rob from the Confederate Colonies of Orion. It couldn’t just be a runaway – the bounty was way too big for that. The damn thing must have killed someone when it ran. The United Colonies of Earth and her Territories and the Confederate Colonies of Orion may have been at war, but returning wayward property was still a lucrative – and legal – endeavor. It was a solid job.
Still, something was off. Tuco was oddly anxious. Even for Tuco.
Turning back to the saddle, she took her own gun belt down from its hook and strapped it on her left hip. There was a satisfying click as the pitted U.S. Army buckle latched. When she turned back, Tuco was looking at her. His cigar cherry glowed brightly against the black outside. “That pistola; you ready to sell it to me yet? Never seen anything like it. It’s a collector’s dream. Name your price.”
She pulled Delilah from her holster and held it in her pink-dusted glove. The gun looked like something from an old Earth sci-fi serial, but with more industrial elements - like a row of exhaust ports running along its left side. The coating of paint had faded and chipped over the years, but someone had once painted a shark’s grin on the right side, opposite the exhaust.
Tuco had been obsessed with Delilah since the first time he laid eyes on her. This was just his latest effort to tempt to buy her. The drifter turned the heavy gun over in her hands, then dropped it back in its holster.
“Not a chance Tuco. There’s no price. It’s a family heirloom.”
Tuco harrumphed and turned back to the window. “One day I’m going to get that gun,” he said darkly. “Can we get moving? I want to get this bounty-head and get out of there as soon as we can.”
“Gotta give Tilly a little while longer to cool off. Then it’s just two more sprints to the coordinates – Las Ráfagas.”
“Podríamos hacerlo en uno si no mima su nave,” Tuco mumbled.
“Yeah, we probably could do it in one if we pushed hard. But even with a full fuel cell Tilly’s engine gimbal would be too burned out to leave the system, let along sprint us the kiloparsec back to CCO controlled space. What’s your rush?”
He waved his hand dismissively, never taking his eyes off the stars outside.
Her brow furrowed. “Seriously Tuco, what’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing, I-” Tilly’s proximity alarms cut him off with a squeal.
Glaring dagger at him, the drifter smashed her cigar into the bowl, shoved Tuco out of the way, and peered out the window. Flashes of light, like fireworks, were going off all around Tilly. A dozen mounts had sprinted in, and more came with every flicker of light. Another flash lit the hide of one of the mounts. It was the San Juan-Paul Waystation bulls – law enforcement on the Cygnus Trail. Their ponies were small, smaller even than Tilly, and well beyond their recommended range. They must have pushed their engines hard to catch up with them. No way they could give chase if she ran. Especially if she gave them something to do.
She turned in Tuco and grabbed him by his duster. “What did you do?”
Tilly’s communications array crackled to life as the bulls hacked into it. “Attention: Steeldust Class-A Transport 94517, by the authority of the San Juan-Paul Marshal’s Office you are hereby ordered to cut all engines and prepare to be boarded. You are under arrest for the murder of Abraham Wallis and the robbery of the Cygnus Union Coach. Comply or be fired upon.”
Tuco shrugged. “I couldn’t help it. He was just begging me to take it from him.”
“Oh, you impulsive son of a-” She pulled his gun from his holster before he could reach for it, stepped back, and pointing it at him. “Where is it? Where’re the damn spoons?” She yelled and she turned over his bunk, always keeping one eye on him. A mess of dirty clothes and tack fell from the cot. Kicking through it with the toe of her boot, she found what she was looking for: a small metallic credit spoon marked with the Cygnus Union logo.
“N-now, let’s not do anything too hasty,” Tuco said. “You and I have been in worse scraps than this. We can fight our way out!
She bent to pick up the spoon, never taking the gun off Tuco. “Not this time, pendejo. Tilly’s rifle turret is stuck 17 degrees off-center. And I’m not risking my neck because you can’t keep this,” she waggled his gun at him, “in your damn pants. Into the pod.” She gestured to the escape pod bulging from the right-rear wall.
“Come on now, hermana. Be reasonable.”
“Reasonable? Oh, I can be reasonable.” She walked him backwards towards to pod, grabbing a spare spoon and transfer pad from a shelf. The spoons clicked into their ports on the pad. “Thumb. In the spoon. Now.”
“Hermana…” Tuco’s voice had turned threatening.
“Don’t think I won’t end you with your own beam-shooter for this. Thumb. Now.”
“Attention: Steeldust Class-A Transport 94517,” the hacked comms said again. “Shut down all engines and prepare to be boarded.”
Tuco reluctantly put his thumb in the hollow if the Cygnus Union spoon and a cheerful chime sounded, signaling the start of a transfer. “Puta, how much are you taking?” Another chime sounded. Transfer complete. She kicked Tuco in the chest, hard. With an “Ooph,” that was half-surprise, he fell back into the waiting escape pod. She tossed his gun in after him before the door could close.
As the hatch sealed, she pressed the pad against the window to show Tuco. “Since you rutted up the deal I agreed too, I’ve taken half what you stole. That’s only fair since it’s less than half what you promised me for this job. I’m also charging you for parts and labor on the pod. Which, by the way, I bought on the cheap and had to modify extensively to fit Tilly. I’d button up if I were you. I can’t promise all the seals’ll hold.”
Tuco’s face fell into naked panic. “Manflor loca,” he spat. He scrambled to seal up his duster and pull its black hood over his head, dropping his still burning cigar onto his chest in the process. His duster’s life support systems kicked in and threw a shield across the front of the hood just before the pod was jettisoned out into the void.
The drifter sprinted the ten paces back to the saddle, clicked her spurs into the yaw stirrups, and engaged Tilly’s FTL engine. She flipped the comms transmitter on and hailed the approaching bulls. “Hi there, this is Steeldust Class-A Transport 94517,” she said in the most innocent voice she could muster. “You’ll find the party responsible for the charges you’ve laid out in an escape pod in my dust. Turn your sensors to the object 0.47 kilometers off my right-rear quarter – that’s your man.”
“Attention: Steeldust Class-A Transport 94517. All parties onboard are under arrest. You have five seconds to shut down your engine or you will be destroyed. I ain’t gonna warn ya again.”
“That’s right officers, Tuco Benedicto Ramírez. That’s your man. No need for a reward, I’m just happy to do my civic duty. Safe travels!” In one practiced motion she flipped off the comms and kicked Tilly into an FTL sprint.
Tunk! She slammed her fist down on the saddle horn. Tuco had been an impulsive bastard for as long as she had known him. Hell, they met when he tried to steal from her. He saw what he thought was an easy mark and got a broken wrist for his efforts.
He had approached her with this job back on Gateway Station, fifty parsecs from Earth and on the edge of Old Colonies of the UCET and CCO. She had hesitated then. Under normal circumstances the bounty would have been worth the trip but crossing the Cygnus Rift with Tuco was enough to give her pause. At over a thousand parsecs to the target coordinates, it would take Tilly more than a month to get there. That was a lot of time for Tuco to do something stupid.
But the money had been too good. So, she had convinced herself she could keep Tuco in line for long enough to get paid. It was his job after all; she didn’t think he would want to sabotage it. She had been stupid. And now, here she was, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, low on Rb-87 and spoons, with the bulls on her trail, and her job prospects gone – Tuco had had all the bounty information on him when she jettisoned him.
Outside the saddle canopy, rivers of light flowed around Tilly as the engine gimbal warped the fabric of spacetime around the small mount. Turning around was out of the question. If she headed back to San Juan-Paul, she’d be arrested as soon as Tilly slowed to sub-light canter. But the bulls’ smaller and slower ponies had no chance of catching up if she ran Tilly hard. Communication was still limited by the speed of the mount carrying the message, so the bigger the head start she got, the longer she could stay ahead of the law.
As far as she could see, that left her with only two options:
She could turn back towards the Cygnus Trail waystations and try to double back across the Rift by sprinting past San Juan-Paul Station – dubious, given how low Tilly was on rubidium.
Or she could head on to Las Ráfagas and try to refuel at the mining depot. If she pushed Tilly to the point of exhaustion, she might just be able to make it in one sprint - just like Tuco said. She didn’t like the idea. The bulls had to know where she was going – there were only so many places to go out here. But the more time she had to make some basic repairs, get refueled, and get back out to the void, the better her chances of not being dragged down by Tuco’s recklessness.
Air rushed through Tilly’s environmental system like a dissatisfied grunt. The drifter patted the control panel. “I know, girl. I’m sorry. But we don’t have much choice, do we? Just hold on for me and I’ll get you fixed up and fed. Then we can plan our next move.” Which would likely involve the frontier colonies in the Cygnus X star cluster. Not her preferred place to settle but laying low on some backwater agro-world for a few months while the heat blew over would be a vacation compared to one of the UCET’s “rehabilitation” programs.
She squeezed with her spurs, making a minor course correction, before slipping from the saddle and heading for her bunk. It was going to be a long sprint this time. She was doing exactly what she told Tuco they couldn’t – pushing Tilly too hard. That meant when they got there the engine was going to need some babying. Better to get a nap in now while Tilly was fresh.
Blaring alarms woke her an instant before Tilly was violently rocked and the drifter was thrown from her bunk.
What the tunk?
Trouble with Tilly’s systems, but not the trouble she had been expecting. She raced around the mount’s curve to find the engine room quickly filling with a foul-smelling vapor. It was pouring from of a broken seal on a coolant pipe. Coughing against the caustic gas, she found the system’s shut-off valve and threw her weight against it. The hissing leak slowed and stopped. She moved through the haze of coolant to Tilly’s environmental controls and turned on the emergency ventilation system. The fans in the floor and ceiling spun up to gale force and vented the gas into space. Something had been weakened when she launched Tuco’s pod, and then ruptured under the stress of a prolonged FTL sprint.
She wiped sweat from her brow and dropped into the saddle, exhausted. That had been close. She was going to have enough problems with the engine as it was, the last thing she needed was to lose coolant. But it hadn’t been too bad – she still had plenty of the of the critical gas, and this was a repair she could make on the fly. She leaned forward and rested her head against the control console.
As if on cue, the moment her forehead touched the console the pony was rocked again, and she was thrown from the saddle. “What now?” she spat and scrambled back into the seat.
The center ring of the engine gimbal had seized, locking into position. “Oh rut,” she whispered through gritted teeth. Without all three rings spinning, it would be only moments before Tilly lost power and was thrown out of her FTL sprint. And they were coming up on Las Ráfagas’s coordinates.
This was going to be rough reentry.
The bubble of light enclosing Tilly through her FTL sprint suddenly burst, flashing white brilliance throughout the sector as the small mount tumbled, uncontrolled and dark, back across the light barrier. Glancing out the canopy as she struggled to regain control, the drifter couldn’t help but notice Aeolus. The gas giant’s bands of yellow, red, and orange dominated the view outside.
She flipped open an access panel behind the main control console and tried to hotwire the backup power. Spark flew, but the lights came back on, and with them a whole new set of proximity alarms – Tilly was awake again, and unhappy to find herself about to burn up in an atmosphere. She climbed back into the saddle and pilot fought to reclaim control as they screamed through Aeolus’s upper atmosphere. Turbulence shook Tilly again and another warning light started blinking in angry scarlet – hide breach.
Without leaving the saddle she grabbed an old, dirty-gray poncho from its hook, draped it over her shoulders, and pulled the hood up. A cheerful voice spoke up in her ear. “Dangerous atmospheric change detected. Enacting emergency protocols. Please prepare for pressurization and life support initialization.” She braced as her flight suit inflated and an energy field came down across the front of her hood.
Her gloved fingers flew across the controls, flipping switches and slamming buttons. Atmospheric thrusters finally kicked in, but by then Tilly was falling too fast and too steep to pull out of the dive. Always knew I’d die alone, she thought. At least Tilly’s with me. Nevertheless, the drifter dug her spurs in, pulled back on the yoke reins with all her might, and prayed.