Maria Purificación Jerónimo, B. Eng., dry spat at the bright point centered on her singleship’s main screen. The offset of the methane spectral lines confirmed this was the Earther starship braking ass-backwards on its fusion drive. The incoming squad of mercenaries was spoiling for a fight with her Alpha Centauri home, riding their engine’s blue flame like one ginormous ignited fart.
Maria turned her scope feed one-eighty. Alpha Centauri B shone yellow, no brighter from thirty AUs than the intruder. Her detached ore trailer was no longer visible, its boosters flamed out as it coasted to the main colony on the second planet.
The shitload of platinum-group ore would require weeks to cross the Outer Asteroid Belt, the frontier of the Centauri system where Maria mined. Once she logged its course to the inner planets, thereby registering its contents, her financial security would be assured. Perhaps incentive enough for her daughter Aldea to un-rebel out of Homeguards and finally take her damn admissions test at the School of Engineering.
A voice broke in on the radio, “OAB Control to mining ships in Sector Twelve. Your ears only. Repeat: your ears only.”
Idiots. A secure beam to only six singleships logged as Outer Asteroid Belt traffic this month, but Hush, please. In a volume the shape of a half-eaten slice of cake a billion kilometers to a side—one of twelve going around the home star to map the belt—the six miners were too far apart to converse anyway.
Eyes on screen, Maria felt behind her and across the closet-sized cabin until she reached the comm unit’s decrypt switch. The disembodied voice went on. “Have revised our projection of the Earther ship’s course—see the data channel. News will reach colonial authorities in five hours. Be advised that Homeguards have been deployed in orbit around the colony planet. Standby for further updates.”
Which idiot thought reservists like Aldea were a match for trained mercenaries? Maria stabbed at her board: ignition sequence started.
Standby my gluteus max.
The initial alert about an incoming Earther had crawled at lightspeed from a probe monitoring the outer edge of the system to the OAB station at Sector Twelve’s innermost end. The relay from Control had inched back across much the same billion kloms to reach Maria, making the two-hour-old info as good as two-hour old beer. Her outlying singleship was uniquely placed to eyeball the Earther early. She fed her own spectral data to the onscreen map.
Kilometer-sized asteroids appeared as irregular blobs, indigo on a baby blue background, with those too small for that scale still pre-vectored in the computer. Glacier-paced orbits made such obstacles as easy to skirt as islands for a schooner.
In solid red, the intruder’s course aimed straight for what Earth-Centauri traders called the Main Earthside Strait. She knew it well. Long ago, she’d crewed the ship that every decade cleared the Strait of rare collision debris using an immense aerogel-lightsail. Of course, the real money was in mining, as she kept trying to persuade Aldea.
Beep. The map shifted the Earther’s course in dotted orange, toward the Sagan Narrows where she’d just dispatched her trailerful of valuables. The update OAB had sent to the main colony was obsolete. Dangerously so.
“Break-break,” the radio continued. “We’re advised that the Homeguard shuttle has left orbit on a long-range intercept.”
Colonial authorities had sent the cavalry early, gambling to take the fight away from the home planet. Relying on obsolete data, the off-course Homeguards would either miss or have zero fuel left to maneuver when they met the mercenaries. Not that either side deployed actual warships. Shuttle and starship were mere transports—each fragile in its own way—for grunts in armored spacesuits. But it was a good bet that better trained and bloodied-by-combat mercenaries would slice open the Homeguard militia like cans of meat.
On Maria’s board, the engine status light finally turned green. She punched it. The forward radar turned on automatically, as did the magnetic deflectors that handled dirt smaller than pebbles.
For Maria, the crisis was hours old, but being triggered by a warning from EarthGov’s new administration, it was in fact four years, nineteen weeks, and two days old—time for the notice to reach Alpha Centauri from Earth at the speed of light. Add to that the five years of tenure the previous administration had enjoyed to whip up their black ops. The message warned that the megacorp Offworld Holdings might’ve sent a troop of mercenaries to forcibly take control of the Centauri colony; if the intel was dependable, an illegally armed starship might arrive on the heels of the EarthGov message.
Well, the intel was solid, the starship was here, and Maria had two hours to stop the jarheads before her girl Aldea’s unit became the sole obstacle in their path.
Two hours later, the Earther’s engine flame glowed sun-bright in Maria’s viewport, its exhaust designed hot enough to vaporize possible pebbles made as dangerous as hollow-point bullets by the starship’s velocity.
Fuel-wise, Maria had just spent her last fumes. The rapidly closing starship resulted in more accurate flight vectors, and a brief calculation made it clear that momentum alone would never close the remaining ten-kilometer gap in time. Her thin hope of ramming the invaders evaporated. She needed a plan B.
OAB Control posted the presumed starship’s complement on the data feed: one guy wanted for the murder of United prisoners, another suspected in the Antarctica massacre, and so on. The lot of them on loan from Murder, Rape, & Pillage Inc. Perhaps they shot puppies and kittens for target practice. Maria killed the feed.
Damn. Even if she got out and pushed, she’d merely shove herself away while her vessel barely nudged forward—Wait, wait, equal and opposite reaction. If it barely nudged forward.
Jettison stuff at the enemy. With pushback factored in, a projectile would still outrun her singleship. Yes. Throw a string of objects in the Earther’s path as mass mines!
Maria rushed below deck to don her spacesuit.
On her cramped ship, the workshop doubled as an airlock. She cycled the outer hatch open. Shit-piss-fuck, I’m facing the wrong side. She stuck her feet in the floor restraints. Attitude jets puffed and her singleship rotated. She aligned the open hatch with the insubstantial mouth of the Sagan Narrows, a patch of starry sky otherwise like any other. Squinting, she tongued the shade switch inside her helmet. A black LCD spot on the visor tracked the blinding exhaust of the approaching starship.
Her mining tools were integral to the ship itself and dismounting them would require a couple of hours in dry dock. Even her brand new 3D printer was welded to the bulkhead. But she needed only deplete the print supplies. She selected “LowRes” to quick-print a sledgehammer, summoned her high-school track & field aim, and threw it outside. The spinning tool soon became too small to see.
The printer display flashed a warning, “Insufficient metal to continue. Print sickle instead?”
She threw the sickle hard enough to catch up with the hammer. Take that, capitalist pigs!
Maria unfastened the strap above her workstation and grabbed Aldea’s battered first tennis racket. The memento was sturdy enough to lob whatever quick-resin objects the printer spewed out next, but would they yield enough mass to damage the Earther?
She positioned the solid plastic ball floating a meter and a half in front of her, rotated her hips to the right, and swung the racket with all her might. “Ow!” Pain stabbed through her hip joint, so sharp she thought she’d unhinged it. With her feet in restraints, only her torso had followed through, twisting full left and then some. By the third swing, she got the hang of flicking her wrist to add momentum.
Down the print options she went. She volleyed out balls, beakers, bobbleheads—Bohr and de Broglie, whoever they were—bushings, byzants, whatever those were. Print consumables ran out before the B’s did. As spent as her missile inventory, sweat beading on her brow, Maria cursed her decision to settle for starter cartridges.
The radio crackled. “Rebel colonists, this is Earth starship Centauri Province. We are mandated to enforce a system-wide governorship.” The confident female voice chilled Maria. “We’ve broken your codes and are monitoring your system. Order your Homeguard to stand down. They’re green, they’ll only get hurt.”
Maria pictured her daughter’s ship gutted and on fire, Aldea choking on her own blood, angry at her mother for being absent the past couple of years to earn enough to pay for schooling she didn’t even want.
Cursing Maria with her dying breath.
The flyby of the enemy ship was a non-event. On Maria’s visor, the LCD shade winked out with the exhaust. Starlight barely revealed an evanescent shadow that quickly receded to invisibility straight down the Sagan Narrows. To them, she was just another speck moving at random, too distant to cause concern.
At last, she admitted to herself how unlikely the mass mines would either cover the distance in time or aim true. But there had been nothing else to try.
Maria nudged her attitude jets. She wanted to veer the enemy away from the Sagan Narrows by sheer force of will—Wait!
Not veer them away, but rather the opposite. Count on their navigation of the Narrows to be as precise, and as centered as her departed ore sled.
She thumbed on her trailer remote and rammed its joystick full right. Her mistake had been to think of the ore chiefly as “valuables.” In her mind’s eye, she pictured her precious craft—as yet unlogged and unseen—invisible smack in the middle of the dark Narrows, rotating in response to her command like a rifle bullet.
This was it. Maria was about to lose her fortune, her leverage to make up with Aldea for all the missed Christmases, her livelihood, everything but the singleship on her back.
“You wanna party?” She checked the vectors on her display. “I’ll show you a party.”
Beep. Trailer cargo doors unlocked.
Maria pictured several thousand tons of boulders each as wide as a table for twelve jostling out. Mass mines galore. They’d disperse into a terribly substantial net, impossible to detect in time at the starship’s velocity. A thousand oversized sledgehammers. The Earthers ramming the smallest would result in fireworks visible clear to the colony planet.
Facing the open hatch, Maria mumbled, “Hurt my baby girl, would you?”
A brilliant point appeared. It grew into an expanding fireball, hot as a star. Her visor’s LCD shade darkened the spot in response.
“Yippee ki-yay, motherfuckers!”