by Tom Dillon

Guild Ship Arton -01:29:18

Zero had once been told that when all you have is a spanner, everything looks like a bolt. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that it works the same way with a gun. When you’re looking at things through the weapon’s Augmented Reality system, your brain begins to classify everyone as either friend or foe. Whether it was a feature of the human brain or some feat of psychological engineering designed into the AR system, Zero wasn’t sure, and supposed it didn’t matter.

“Remember, whatever’s waiting for us in there, violence is an option, but it is the last option,” Skip said. It didn’t sound any more convincing now than it had when he had first signed on, six years and more than a hundred missions ago, but along with a well-edited version of the recordings it would save their asses should they find ourselves the target of some witch hunt.

Zero stopped listening to Skip and watched the timestamp superimposed on the corner of his vision, the red numbers counting down to contact with the target: -01:27:16, -01:27:15, -01:27:14. He could handle whatever was waiting for him in that station, he was sure that he had seen worse, it was the anticipation that did people in. Although the timestamp helped it not seem like forever, it made it hard to forget, too. He looked across at Dart, sitting on the other side of Skip, but she was reading a treatise on the mechanics of jump gates or something equally beyond the limits of his understanding. He didn’t interrupt her, she was touchy about her reading time. So he checked and rechecked his needlegun, making sure that the gauge was green. He ran his armor diagnostics for the eighth time, and it was still at full integrity. He sucked down a packet of nutri-gel, but he knew it was a bad idea. It was an indefinable combination of sweet, savory, and salty, engineered to be impossible to puke up, but not for lack of trying on his stomach’s part.

Finally, he relaxed back into the bench, and tried to meditate. It wasn’t his idea of fun, but it beat listening to Skip cover their asses.

Horizon Station, Central Control Room

“Hey Guys, you might want to get up,” Remi said. There was no response. She rang the station’s siren.

“What the hell?” Vance’s voice came through her handheld, sounding both groggy and pissed off. A moment later, Ava’s voice came through as well, echoing the sentiment.

“There’s a ship approaching that’s broadcasting a medical emergency beacon, but no transponder,” she said. She didn’t finish the thought, they all knew what it meant. Pirates.

“We knew this was going to happen sooner or later,” Ava said.

“I was really hoping for later,” Vance said. They had talked about it when they had first claimed the station, but it was one thing to talk about pirates and another entirely to actually see them approaching, growing ever larger on the screens.

“How long?”

“It looks like they’re just drifting in, so about an hour. You should both come to the Control Room.”

Five minutes later, the two of them showed up, Ava in clothes that looked slept in. Remi had put some carrots and coffee on the table that dominated one side of the room. They looked at the juxtaposition and shrugged, it was strange but strange was better than depleting their dwindling supplies of preserved food, and definitely better than dealing with pirates on an empty stomach.

“So what’s the plan?” Vance asked around the crunches of his carrot.

“I know that it’s a bad idea, but they’re broadcasting a ME beacon and I don’t want to risk someone dying because we were too afraid to open the doors,” Remi said, realizing halfway through that she had cut off Ava, who was used to being the group’s leader.

“Are you saying that you want to let pirates into our home just because they’re asking for help?” Ava asked. “If pirates had a manual, that would be page one. Are you crazy?”

“I’m not saying that we should give them the run of the station,” Remi said before Vance could interject. “I’m just not ready to stand by and let someone bleed to death while I do nothing.”

“I’m with Remi on this, Ava,” Vance said. “They might be telling the truth, but if we say no, they might also just shoot their way in.” He gestured to the picture of the pirate ship that was up on one of the screens. It wasn’t large, maybe three times the size of a short range shuttle, and it didn’t have any obvious weaponry, although with pirates, that didn’t mean much. “Besides, it looks like smugglers or scavengers, the sort of people that we may have something in common with.”

There was silence as the ramifications of what he said sunk in. Ava’s eyes unfocused and Remi could see the cogs and gears turning in Ava’s mind, as fear turned to opportunity. She flashed a smile to Vance, but he just shrugged, he hadn’t been trying to do her a favor.

“Vance, suit up and meet me in the bay,” Ava said. “Remi, I’ll need you to stay here.”

“Wait, you want to meet them in person? Why not just do it over comms?” Remi said.

“We’re going to be outgunned no matter what, safe isn’t an option,” Ava said. “Our only real shot is to make them not want to kill us, and that will be a lot easier to do in person.”

Remi couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She looked to Vance.

“I wish there was some other way, Remi,” he said.

Horizon Station, Main Cargo Bay

“Welcome,” Ava said. She and Vance were standing side by side in the middle of the bay, the central shaft that led to the top deck open above them. Vance was standing slightly behind her, hopefully making her look more in control than she felt. She tried to look relaxed and assertive, with her thumbs hooked into her pockets, but wasn’t sure if it was working. Either way, it was too late to change things, if she moved her arms, it would look like she was nervous, or worse, scared.

There were three pirates standing between her and the airlock. They were wearing dark grey exo suits that looked like they had been through their share of violence. The man in charge looked at the two of them but didn’t move. His crew all had their weapons drawn, but they were pointed at the floor. A good sign, all things considered.

“So, are you a bunch of pacifists? Or do you have people waiting behind the doors?” he asked. He was comfortable with either prospect.

“Neither,” she said. “But I don’t think that you’re here for the conversation. What do you want?” A frown flashed across his face, he clearly wasn’t the sort of man who liked surprises.

“I know how this is going to sound, but one of my crew needs some medical attention,” the captain said.

“We don’t have much in the way of medical supplies or expertise,” Ava said. “But we’ll do what we can.”

“Understood,” he said. “But we do need a few parts for one of our engines, we got a little beat up recently.”

“We have some spare parts, what do you have to trade?” Ava asked.

“Trade?” he asked. One of his crew smothered a laugh. “You do realize what we do, right?”

“Yeah, but I have a feeling that you’ll come around to our view.” She realized her mistake as soon as the words left her mouth, the pirates suddenly had their weapons at the ready and were eying the doorways and ceiling.

“Is that a threat, then?” he asked.

“You just seem like a reasonable man is all,” she said.

“To me, reasonable means not paying for something I can just take,” he said, smiling.

Guild Ship Arton -00:01:53

Zero felt the ship felt the ship come back online for the final leg approach to station X1311879, decelerating quickly enough to push them all against their restraints. Time crept by as the AI pilot aligned the ship with one of the station’s docking ports, coming to rest against it and locking into place in near silence. Their restraints unlatched, and he stood up alongside Skip and Dart. The ship overrode the station’s security within a matter of seconds, and after cycling through the airlock, the three of them found themselves looking at five surprised faces and a body on a stretcher in the cargo bay.

Skip began to give the standard speech, “Under the order of the Syndicated Merchants Guild–” but was unable to finish before the situation went fractal.

Skip and Dart were hit with concussive rounds that knocked them back into the airlock. Zero had already started to dodge, and the round meant for him passed through where his chest had been a fraction of a second earlier, its path outlined by his AR system. A larger object followed his comrades into the ship, and he was thrown forward into a prone position by the blast. His connection to his comrades was instantly severed. He tried to get up, but a kick to the side of his head convinced him otherwise, another kick and the world went black.

Horizon Station, Central Control Room

By the time Remi noticed the flashing icon that indicated the third set of bay doors was being forced, it was over. Two of the newcomers were on the ground in the airlock, their misted blood making its way into the scrubbers, and a third lay unconscious after a kick to the head. Remi’s finger hovered over the button that would evacuate the cargo bay’s air, but the pirates lowered their weapons. The pirates faces were blank and they held themselves relaxed and ready. As bad as the violence and blood had been, the pirates’ complete lack of reaction was worse. If things went wrong, they wouldn’t have a second thought about killing the lot of them. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even have a first thought, but would just act.

She didn’t know how long she sat there, paralyzed, before the rational part of her brain kicked in and started wondering about the other ship. Immediately she lost herself in mechanisms of her intellect, as she always did when things got bad or scary or hard, and the fear went away. The newcomers’ ship didn’t have a transponder, and Remi couldn’t interface with it, but she was able to get an ID off of it.

“Syndicated Merchants Guild, who the hell is that?” she asked, then laughed when she realized she was talking to an empty room. She watched the feed from the cargo bay as her fingers entered a query about the SMG into the system.

“Back to business, then,” the pirate captain said after his crew had knocked the remaining soldier unconscious and secured him. “You were telling me that we couldn’t just take what we wanted.”

“Yes,” Ava said, looking shaky but remarkably calm given the situation. “The problem is that you’re stuck here. Our friend in the control room has the entire station on lockdown.”

“We can get around that,” the captain said, unfazed.

“Maybe, but not before my friend blows the charges on the docking arms, you can’t, not before she opens this level to vacuum,” she said.

“She wouldn’t.”

“She doesn’t want to,” Ava corrected him. Remi was thankful that it was Ava down there and not her, she had never gotten the knack of bluffing. “But if you don’t want to be reasonable about this, that’s a gamble that you’re going to have to work out on your own.”

The captain relaxed. “That’s not how this works. If you give us what we want, we will let you live, and even if you don’t believe me, it’s still a possibility. On the other hand, your friend opens the airlocks, we all die.” He paused to let his words sink in. “Here’s what we’ll need.”

As the captain listed off the things that he would be taking from the station, Remi’s attention drifted back to the console where her query had come back with the requested information. The SMG was a coalition of traders, manufacturers, and merchants, who controlled about half of the interstellar trade. Remi had always assumed that the Stations were part of some governmental federation, but it appeared that she had been mistaken, the various Stations were bound together by a web of guilds and cartels, with the SMG being the largest of them. The SMG owned the jump gates, and used them to exert control.

“So what were you doing here?” she asked, and began another search.

Horizon Station +01:13:09

Zero woke up to the strange sensation of half of his head being numb from direct contact with the cold floor and the other feeling like he had drunk his weight in cheap alcohol. His arms were tied behind his back, tight enough that the cords were cutting into his skin even through the suit, and his AR display still didn’t register any contact from Skip or Dart. He had his system play back the fight, if it could really be called that.

The first shots had been small concussive rounds, enough to knock them back, but not heavy enough to do any real damage through the suits. The next shot had been a heavy concussive round, and in the close confines of the airlock, his AR calculated that they would have been exposed to several thousand atmospheres of pressure. The possibility of an afterlife was more probable than survival.

As his mind processed what had happened, he was glad that he was already on the ground, it wasn’t the sort of thing he would have wanted to be standing up for. After he had lost Soren five years before, he had been careful not to get too attached to his comrades, but after enough time locked in a small ship someone, you either kill them or become friends, and although friend wasn’t as bad as lover, it still hurt like hell. The tears that leaked sideways down his face were hot until they reached the deck and all of their heat was sucked out of them.

A little while later, his mind had worked though enough of the past to start working on the future and he felt his muscles unclench as he looked around and tried to figure out what to do next. He couldn’t pick up any sound or movement nearby, the pirates were otherwise occupied and hadn’t noticed that he had regained consciousness. He might still be able to get out alive.

He instructed his AR system to display a map of the station, and it projected a rotating 3D wireframe onto his retinas. The station was a squat cylinder, with five decks. There was a shaft ten meters in diameter that ran straight down the vertical axis with a lift running along one of its sides, as well as several stairways along the edges of the station and next to the lift. He looked around as much as he could without moving his head, and everything he saw was locked. His AR did the same thing, trying to pair with the various doors in the bay, but was rebuffed from the few interfaces that weren’t disabled completely. There would be no escape.

He flexed his wrists, hoping for some play in his restraints, but they were secure. His system couldn’t find any electronic lock to interface with, which wasn’t surprising, the pirates were too practical for anything as failure prone as cuffs and had probably bound him with simple composite cord. He fed a couple of instructions to his suit, and felt the fabric around his wrists stiffen, taking some of the pressure off of his wrists. The suit continued to stiffen, and his wrists were loose inside it as the suit’s cuffs attempted to form perfect circles. After a few more seconds, he was able to slip his hands out of the restraints. He carefully worked the stiffness out of his wrists and was about to start moving back towards the airlock when two people approached the crate that he was laying behind. He relaxed his muscles as much as he was able, willed them to not look too closely and notice that he had gotten free.

“No,” a woman’s voice said. “Everything else, but not that.”

“We’ve been over this,” a man’s voice said. “As much as you may dislike it, we’re going to take what we want.”

“Or what, you’ll kill us? What do you imagine will happen if you take all of our food?”

“I imagine you would starve to death, but that’s not on me,” the man said. “The food would have run out eventually. If you came out here without figuring out where your next meal’s going to come from, that’s on you.”

The two of them moved on in silence, and Zero let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he had been holding. He needed to get a weapon. Between cover and surprise, he might be able to make it out alive. A glance at the airlock, the locked symbol partially obscured by a film of blood, was all it took to convince him of the foolishness of the idea. He moved so that he could see around the corner of the crate. There were three pirates, easily distinguishable by their piecemeal armor, and two inhabitants of the station as well as one other person on a stretcher. Two of the pirates were in the process of loading the crates through the bay doors into their ship.

“What’s the status of Darius, here?” the pirate captain asked.

“The infirmary was gutted when we got here,” the man said. “And neither of us is a doctor. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” the pirate said before calling to his crew over his shoulder. “How much longer.”

“Less than an hour,” one of the crew replied. Zero could see the captain checking his sidearm, he wasn’t planning on leaving any survivors.

Zero looked around again, hoping that his needlegun was just wedged under a crate or something. It wasn’t. As rough up as the pirates looked, they weren’t stupid. He unfocused his eyes, bringing up his AR system, and picked out the ship tile, waiting for a too-loud heartbeat as the ship’s systems authenticated him. He flashed past the first two tilesets until he found the emergency beacon, and set it on a heading for the nearest gate. There was no way it would make it, and even if it did, help would be a couple of months too late in coming. He sent it anyway.

“Captain!” a shout came from the pirate captain’s handheld. “The Guild ship just shot off a beacon.”

“Fucking Guild,” the captain said, and looked back towards where Zero was laying. Zero froze, but the captain wasn’t looking for anything and his gaze didn’t linger. “You had better get chasing it, before it gets too much of a lead.” He put his hand on his weapon and looked at the two stationers, but their looks of confusion saved them.

“What about the cargo?” one of the pirates asked.

“I’ll load what I can into the Guild ship, we’ll take care of the balance when you get back.”

The two pirates each grabbed a crate and carried it with them into their ship before the bay doors closed. The station vibrated from the backwash as they left to pursue the beacon, leaving the pirate captain and the two stationers.

The pirate captain pointed his weapon at the woman and spoke to the man. “Get moving.”

The stationer stiffened for a moment, but he didn’t have the fight in him, and in a matter of moments, he was carrying crates to Zero’s ship, shoulders slumped. Zero watched, unmoving, as the events took on a rhythm and momentum all their own. The fact was that without constant stimulus, the human mind simply could not maintain any meaningful state of aggressive vigilance, and by the time the stationer had made a few trips, the captain had lost his edge, his weapon no longer pointed at his hostage, but rather in her general direction.

Zero wouldn’t get a better chance, and he instructed his suit to pump him full of stims the next time the stationer disappeared through the airlock. Had he been thinking he would have hesitated, and died. Instead, he found his legs under him and hunched forward in a sprint that pitted gravity against his legs’ ability to keep him off the ground. He ran in a wide arc to avoid the crates and the long jump over them that would have made him an easy target. The pirate had turned halfway to face him by the time he had covered the twenty meters that separated them and Zero caught him under the ribs with his shoulder, his momentum carrying both of them to the ground, the pirate’s gun clattering across the decking.

The pirate lashed out, catching Zero across the nose with an elbow. His eyes welled up with tears, and he reached down to where the pirates head had been, to find only air. Another blow, this time to the back of the head, and Zero was down.

Horizon Station +03:51:49

Zero’s return to consciousness was accompanied by a renewed headache, cord cutting into his wrists, and a flashing red tile announcing that his AR system was unable to find anything to pair with. He told his AR to pump painkillers, but it refused, telling him that his body couldn’t handle any more modifiers. He opened his eyes, letting the station’s harsh light in to sear his retinas.

“He’s back,” a woman’s voice said.

“The pirates–” he began.

“Are gone,” a second woman said, one of the stationers. “They took your ship.”

“Then why am I tied up?”

“You ghosted your way to our station, hacked the doors, and boarded, weapons drawn,” the first woman said. “What do you expect?”

“Fair enough, but you have to understand–”

“We don’t have to understand anything.” The second woman, the stationer from the cargo bay leaned forward so that she was looking down into his eyes. “Anything you want us to understand, you had better help with. You can start with who you are and why you’re here.” Some of her hair fell forward, and she had to brush it out of her eyes. In different circumstances, he would have thought that she was coming on to him, but her face made it clear that she wouldn’t have any regrets if she had to throw him out the airlock to protect herself and her friends.

“My name is Zero, I work for the Syndicated Merchants Guild. Your station was flagged as a potential hub for unregulated trade.”

The woman turned to look at her compatriot, who nodded. Apparently his credentials had checked out.

“Unless you count getting robbed, we don’t fit the bill.” The woman eased back as she talked, and Zero relaxed with the knowledge that he probably wasn’t going to die.

“I can see that, so if you want to get a commpod off, the Guild will come and pick me up,” he said.

“Remi, how soon can you get word off?”

“I can have the software ready in a few minutes, but I’ll have to ask Vance about the hardware. Maybe by end of shift,” Remi said.

“That’ll have to do, I suppose,” the first woman said.

“Thank you,” Remi said, and left.

“Thanks . . .” he began.

“Ava,” she said.

“Thank you, Ava.”

Horizon Station, Main Cargo Bay +11:29:11

The end of shift estimate for the commpod proved to be unrealistic, and Zero found himself once again in the cargo bay helping Vance get it up and running. What needed to be done was pretty straightforward, but unfortunately straightforward was not the same thing as quick, and so Zero had to hold wires and boards for several hundred solders.

The two of them worked in near silence for the better part of an hour, talking only when necessary, before Vance broke the silence. “Do you think the pirates will come back?” he asked.

“No, not any time soon,” Zero said. “It will take them a while to catch up to the beacon, and by then they will be far enough away that you will be more trouble than you’re worth.”

“After they didn’t kill us, I was thinking that it was only a matter of time before they came back.”

“No offense, but you aren’t a threat to them,” Zero said. “There was no advantage to killing you.” Zero didn’t add that the pirates might need something from this station in the future, and if Vance and his friends survived, there would be something to take.

The tension went out of Vance’s shoulders and his face softened as some of the weight of concern left him.

“So what’s it like, working for the Guild?” Vance asked.

Zero paused. “OK, I guess. Certainly not as glamorous as in the Sims, but OK,” Zero said.

“But what is it like? Are most places like this?” Vance asked, gesturing above his head to the column that ran through the center of the station to the clear dome on top.

“No, not at all,” Zero said. “The system is pretty good, most places that we go we find exactly what we are looking for, illegal manufacturing or trade, and if not that, then at least evidence of the place being used as a waypoint for smugglers. This is a first for me.”

“And the other companies, do things ever get rough with them?” Vance asked.

“No, there aren’t many contract disputes these days, and of those, few turn violent.”

They finished soldering a section of the pod and had to flip it over. It was about four meters long and a meter in diameter, but was fortunately very light, comprised of nothing but an engine and some basic hardware for navigation and communications strapped to a large fuel tank. With the tank empty, it was more awkward than heavy.

“How about here? How is it living on Horizon?” Zero asked as they began to solder again.

“It’s not easy, but it’s good, better than Habitat at least,” Vance said. “I don’t miss the bowels of that station.”

Zero agreed, he had been to some of the larger stations. From the outside, they were beautiful, the gardens that covered their exteriors causing them to glitter like giant emeralds scattered among the stars. From the inside it was a different matter all together, with the vast majority unable to afford to visit, much less live on, the gilded shell. Instead, most lived in what was best described as a giant metal hive, filled with people and machinery, all buzzing along to the hum of commerce.

The two of them worked in silence after that, assembling the sheaths of the pod’s systems. They were nearly done when Remi’s voice came through the handheld clipped to Vance’s belt.

“You two up for some food?” she asked.

Vance reached down to touch a button. “We’ll be right up.”

Zero didn’t want to stop working, but knew that an hour or two wouldn’t make much of a difference either way. He followed Vance, climbing the stairs that spiraled up the station’s central column.

Two decks up they reached the dining room. The tall floor-to-ceiling translucent panels provided a panoramic view of the void as the station rotated on it’s long axis. But it wasn’t the view that caught Zero’s eyes, it was the food. The food that the pirates had taken had been Chalk, long storage rations named for its taste. It would keep you alive, but you might want to kill yourself. What was arrayed on the table, on the other hand, looked like the food in the adverts, colorful and textured. He wondered what sort of resources they had, if they were able to manufacture elaborate meals while disconnected from any sort of supply network.

Remi arrived as Ava was bringing the last of the food out from the kitchen, and they all sat down around the table and said ritual words of thanks. Zero had no idea what was what, and it all looked great, so he just took some of everything. He took a bite.

It was delicious.

“What is this? Where do you get it?” he asked.

Remi looked him in the eye and answered, “There used to be five of us . . .”

Zero just stared at her for a moment, his fork held halfway between his plate and his mouth. Then Ava and Vance swallowed enough of their food to avoid choking when they burst into laughter, their faces turning red, and the table rattling as they pounded their fists on it.

“We’ll show you later,” Ava said.

They all ate, and Zero ate until he was full, then ate some more, ending up with an empty plate and an aching stomach. Remi excused herself first, then Vance.

“Come on, I want to show you something,” Ava said after they had cleared the table.

“Sure, what is it?” he asked.

“Follow me, I’ll show you,” she said as she led him back to the stairs at the central column.

“What are you going to do now?” he asked.

“The same thing we were doing before, why?” Ava said.

“Even if it was just chalk, the pirates took a lot of food, how are you going to get more?” he asked.

“You’ll see.”

The stairs led them to an open area bigger even than the cargo bay. After he had caught his breath, he looked around to find himself surrounded by green. Plants. They covered the black ground, with narrow footpaths winding through them, and climbed up spindly frameworks that supported brightly colored fruits. The air was thick with humidity and a thousand smells, none of them the familiar oil and hydraulic fluid.

It was unreal, like an AR enhanced training module. With that thought, suddenly everything seemed too real, and Zero had to turn off his System’s visual enhancements to make sure it wasn’t a trick. Everything around him dimmed as his AR stopped sharpening and color-correcting his environment, and he felt lost as the plants all lost their info tags and the ever-present timestamp that hovered in the upper corner of his vision winked out. Without the ability to instantly access the secondary world that was the database, the real world felt distant, disconnected, but at the same time, a part of his brain trusted it in a way that it would never trust the enhanced world in which he lived.

“You can’t go on forever like this,” he said.

“No, but even after losing the Chalk, we have a few years by my calculations,” Ava said. “But really, it’s just a matter of time before we get sick or the plants get sick, or we end up too conveniently hospitable for pirates, and it’s all over.”

He wasn’t expecting her answer. He was expecting to hear the usual bit about being free, not having to depend on anyone for anything. He had seen how that worked out too many times, though, where people had run out of food or water or just gone crazy. When it came to survival, history was pretty firm about the group over the individual.

“So you want a connection to the Guild, then?” he asked.

“No, not that. We want something different, better,” she said. “There have to be others, people who are trying to do the same things, people on stations like this one, and traders doing short hops from station to station. We want to have our needs met, and in return help to meet the needs of others like us, but no more.

“The Guild would call you pirates,” he said.

“What would you call it?”

“I’m not sure, not pirates,” he said. He had seen pirates, too many and too close, manufacturing cheap knockoffs or smuggling things into and out of stations. They all had one thing in common, though, they were all trying to make it, to get rich and live big. Ava, Remi, and Vance on the other hand, were just trying to live.

“Me neither,” she said.

“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.

“I’m saying, that you could make a place for yourself here. If you want.”

Zero looked around the garden. Where a moment before, all he had seen was a system to provide for his needs, now he saw it as part of the system that was Horizon Station, and in that larger system, he saw needs, and he saw himself.