Belt Three: Chapter One

Dystopian space opera Belt Three will be published by Harper Voyager on 18 June. Want a preview? Here’s the first chapter:

Chapter One

The ship was a spindly two-ring clipper, tacking against orbit as it dropped sunward through the main shipping lanes of Belt Three. Jonas magnified the image to fill the bridge screen, so that the insect-like body of the clipper stood out against the golden plane of its sail. The ship was battered, asymmetrical, its grav-rings and spine lost beneath a crust of repairs. There was a marking on the side of its cargo bay, a feathered spiral of white on blue, presumably the logo of some minor shipping company. Apart from its heading, it looked like any of the other ageing tramp freighters that plied the orbits of the inhabited belts.

Ayla, is that course reading correct?’ Jonas asked.

The pilot jumped in her seat. ‘What was that, sir?’

Ayla often became so lost in her connection with the ship that she stopped paying attention to her physical surroundings, but she normally hid it better than that. Jonas made a mental note to give her some time off when they reached port. The stress of the evacuation was getting to all of them.

That ship,’ Jonas said, indicating the screen. ‘It looks like it’s heading for our rock. Can you get its transponder data?’

Ayla’s eyes defocused for a moment as she checked the Coriolis Dancer’s sensors. ‘Yes, sir, the course reading is correct. It’s the Remembrance of Clouds, a private trader registered out of New Calais.’

Jonas frowned. ‘Clouds? Odd name for a ship.’

Ayla consulted her implant again. ‘That’s not its original name. The transponder has been hacked. With more time I could tell what the original name was.’

No, don’t worry about it,’ Jonas said. A hacked transponder was a warning sign, but if the ship really was heading into a Worldbreaker Red Zone, time was the last thing it had.

He looked back to the local belt chart. His abandoned uranium mining outpost, LN-411, was a day’s orbit behind the Dancer, deep inside the conical Red Zone that marked the probable course of the Worldbreaker. Warning glyphs flagged that the rock was forty-five hours from Black Line. The trajectories of dozens of ships traced curved lines across the screen, abandoning rocks in the Red Zone and fleeing towards distant cities.

There were the usual couple of Scriber Immolation ships heading back into the Red Zone, cheap eggshells filled with suicidal cultists on their final pilgrimage. Jonas stabbed a control to filter them out of the image. With the Scribers gone, the only ship moving into the Red Zone was the Remembrance of Clouds.

Something was wrong here, and if it might affect the Dancer’s safety then Jonas wanted to know what it was sooner rather than later.

Hail the Remembrance of Clouds.’ Ayla spoke quietly into the air, letting her implant pick up the words. ‘Remembrance of Clouds, this is the Reinhardt Industries mining hauler Coriolis Dancer. Please acknowledge.’

A woman’s face appeared on the screen immediately, as if she had been waiting for the hail. She looked perhaps thirty, square-jawed, with a mass of unkempt blonde hair and a web of pale scars across one side of her face like an impact crack on glass. Jonas could make out a blue-and-white circular symbol behind her, the same one that he had seen on the side of her ship. She looked at him with an unfriendly smirk, not speaking.

He ignored the woman’s expression and put on a business-like smile. ‘This is Captain Gabriel Reinhardt on the Reinhardt Industries mining hauler Coriolis Dancer.’

Captain Keldra ’82-Pandora, Remembrance of Clouds.’ Her voice had the coarse accent of a Belt Three tank-born.

Captain Keldra, it looks like you’re heading for the LN-411 asteroid. Are you aware that rock is in a Worldbreaker Red Zone? All the mining stations have been evacuated, so if you’re going there to trade . . . ’ Jonas left the sentence hanging. The woman’s smile was unnerving, and she had shown no surprise at the mention of the Worldbreaker.

I’m not heading for LN-411 right now,’ Keldra said. The transmission shut off.

Ayla swivelled in her seat to face Jonas, looking on the verge of panic. ‘Captain, the ship’s altering course. They’re not heading for LN-411. It looks like . . . ’

They’re heading for us,’ said Jonas.

Yes.’

He cursed under his breath. ‘Pirates.’

Ayla’s eyes widened. ‘Pirates?’

Full burn. Evasive manoeuvres.’

Ayla closed her eyes for a moment, and Jonas felt the deep rumble and the shift in gravity as the hauler’s ponderous engines fired.

I can try, but we’re overloaded, and there’s nowhere to run to, even if we went deeper into the Red Zone,’ she said.

No, stay out of the Red Zone.’

Ayla nodded, relieved. She was no Scriber. Even with pirates bearing down, no normal person would willingly head into the path of a Worldbreaker.

Jonas swung out of his chair and headed for the door. ‘You have the bridge. I’ll be back soon.’

* * *

From the outside, the Coriolis Dancer resembled a fat metal mushroom. A single grav-ring ran around the outside of a domed cargo bay, with the fuel tank and chemical reaction drive protruding below the bay like a stalk. Jonas kept the grav-ring spun up at a quarter gee to match the home gravity of most of the miners. Normally on a homeward run the cargo bay would be packed with canisters of uranium to sell at the nearest city, but today it was crammed with the mining and hab equipment they’d salvaged from their hurried evacuation of LN-411, with their last haul of uranium nestling forlornly in the centre.

Jonas’s two dozen mining servitors stood in a row along the ring’s orbital corridor. He tried not to meet their blank stares as he ran past. As Gabriel had, Jonas made sure only to use legal servitors – condemned criminals, or tank-borns who had been unable to pay off their cloning debt – but he knew there was a thriving black market in the mind-wiped victims of pirate raids. That would be how Ayla and the rest of his crew would end up if the Remembrance caught them, and Jonas as well, if Keldra learned his secret.

Most of the free-willed personnel were crammed into the crew lounge, almost the only room on the ship not filled with hastily rescued mining equipment. There were six Worker-caste mining supervisors, and a couple of Engineer-caste members of the Dancers regular crew. They looked up from game pads as Jonas opened the door. He found Matton, the huge red-bearded mining foreman, and gestured for him to come out into the corridor.

Matton waited until they were in the corridor and the door was shut before he spoke. ‘We felt the engines fire.’

Ayla’s putting us on an evasive course,’ Jonas said. ‘Pirates.’

Matton had worked for years to build up his physical strength, but he still moved with the grace of someone who’d been raised in quarter gravity. Now he closed his eyes for a moment and took a breath, and Jonas could tell he was suppressing an urge to punch something.

Damn scavengers, picking us off at a time like this. Well, we had a good run while it lasted. Do you know what to do?’

I want you to jettison the cargo. Empty the bay.’

Matton sighed. ‘You know that’s not what I meant.’

It might make us light enough to outrun them.’

Wouldn’t work. What kind of ship is it?’

It’s a two-ring clipper. Salamander class, I think.’

No, it wouldn’t work. The Salamander has some of the best engines outside of a Solar Authority cruiser. If they’re looking to rob us they’ll be flying with an empty cargo bay. We don’t have the acceleration to evade them.’

It’s still worth a try. What if we strip out everything non-essential? Empty the grav-ring. We just need engines and life support.’

That would take hours. The pirates would be on us before we were done.’

Jonas frantically tried to think. ‘We’ve got a servitor combat programme, haven’t we?’

A basic one, yes, but we’ve no weapons. The servitors couldn’t repel a pirate boarding party.’

No, of course not, but they could be a diversion. If we tie the pirates up in a fight, the rest of us can escape in the shuttle, and if we jettison some junk at the same time then they might not notice us.’

Matton shook his head. ‘They would notice us, and we’d be lucky if they stopped to pick us up rather than shooting us out of space. Sir, you’ve got to surrender. Pirates don’t hurt true-borns. They’ll ransom you to your family – that’s how it works. You can’t save us, but you can save yourself.’

I’ve got to try something. Give me a programming spike.’

Matton drew the device from the pocket of his overalls and handed it to Jonas. ‘It’s up to you, sir, but it’s a bad idea. I should get back in there and tell the men what’s happening.’

Tell them I’ll get them out of this,’ Jonas said. ‘I don’t just want to ransom myself. I’ll find a way to save all of us.’

Sir, you can’t, so don’t try. I’m not going to go in there and give those people false hope.’

Matton—’

Sir, you’re more important than us,’ Matton said gently. ‘We’re just tank-borns. Clones. You’re a true-born. Look for a way to save yourself.’

You know I don’t think I’m better than you.’

Don’t let the men hear you say that.’ Matton put his hand on the lounge door, and then paused. ‘It’s been an honour working with you, sir.’

Jonas nodded sadly. ‘And for me.’

He went up to the nearest servitor and raised the programming spike to the back of its neck, then lowered it again. Matton was right: a straightforward fight would be no good, even as a diversion. He had to think of something else.

* * *

When Jonas got back to the bridge, the Remembrance of Clouds had furled its sail into a bud and was firing up its reaction drive. Ayla had put the Dancer on course for a cluster of small rocks where they might be able to hide, but the pirate ship was closing too quickly. The pilot looked up from her concentration as he entered.

I’m sorry, sir.’

It’s all right,’ he said. ‘How long?’

Just a couple of minutes.’

Without the glare of reflected sunlight from the sail, the Dancer’s scope was able to resolve more details on the Remembrance of Clouds. Some of what Jonas had taken to be repair jobs were actually weapons: he could see dozens of small missile turrets sprouting all over the ship, and something larger, like a launch tube made of industrial piping, built into the nose complex.

His mining outpost on LN-411 had deterred pirates using surface-mounted cannons, but most of the cities with which he traded did not allow armed civilian vessels to approach them, so the Coriolis Dancer itself was unarmed. Normally, the Dancer would only travel to a city when the orbits brought it and LN-411 close enough for it to cross without danger, or when it could join a convoy with an armed escort ship. But a Worldbreaker evacuation meant a breakdown in the normal routine of inter-city commerce. At any time there were hundreds of Worldbreakers starward of the veil. When one of them passed through an inhabited section of one of the belts, the Red Zone of its probable course became thick with unarmed ships making long spins to whatever unthreatened outposts they could reach: rich pickings for any pirate ships nearby. Worldbreakers and pirates both struck rarely enough that true-born ship owners accepted the risk; and since pirates would normally ransom true-borns back to their families, the risk to them was purely financial. It was Jonas and his crew’s bad luck that this pirate had focused on them.

Hail them again,’ Jonas said.

Ayla put the call through. ‘They’re not responding.’

Keep trying.’

He sat back in his control chair and tried to form an image of Keldra in his mind. She had no reason to keep him waiting. It was possible she was tied up by some unrelated task, but more likely she was deliberately keeping him waiting, he decided. Perhaps she liked the feeling of power.

Are we sure they’re pirates?’ asked Ayla hopefully. ‘That symbol they’re using . . . I thought pirates used skulls.’

They usually do.’ Jonas pulled up a magnified image of the logo on the pirate ship’s cargo bay. The spiral was only the skeleton of a more complex pattern: the blue circle was criss-crossed with white streaks and swirls, looking irregular and feather-edged as if they had been hand-painted. He stared for a few seconds before he realized what it depicted. ‘Clouds. That’s a picture of the Earth.’

Oh,’ Ayla said. ‘I didn’t know what it looked like. I suppose you’d know.’

I suppose.’

I’m getting a response through now.’

Keldra’s expression was smug and cruel; she knew she had already won. ‘Captain Gabriel Reinhardt. I see your ship’s changed course. I hope your pilot isn’t taking matters into her own hands.’

Jonas made himself smile. ‘Captain Keldra, as you can see, the Worldbreaker has forced us to travel through dangerous territory with no escort. I’m prepared to offer you a substantial fee in exchange for your protection.’

I’m not interested in being bought off. I want your cargo and your crew.’

There must be some deal we can reach. This doesn’t have to end with my crew mind-wiped.’

Keldra looked at him with disgust. ‘You want to negotiate? Spineless true-born scum, think you can talk your way out of every problem.’

They’re locking weapons,’ Ayla said.

We have no basis to negotiate,’ Keldra continued. ‘You have nothing I want that won’t be mine in a few moments anyway.’

I’ll destroy the ship,’ Jonas said suddenly.

What?’ Keldra froze, and fixed Jonas in a piercing gaze.

You heard me.’ He had made the threat without thinking, but now he couldn’t take it back. ‘If you try to dock, I’ll overload the reactor.’

You won’t,’ Keldra said, but Jonas could tell she wasn’t sure.

Ayla!’ he shouted. ‘Remove reactor safeties!’

Shocked, Ayla hesitated, but then she closed her eyes for a few seconds and warning icons appeared all over Jonas’s console.

Keldra seemed to study him for a moment, not quite hiding her uncertainty, then her mouth curled into a wicked smile. ‘So do it. I’m not turning back.’ The transmission shut off.

Ayla turned back to Jonas, her eyes wide with panic. ‘Gabriel, don’t do this.’

The Remembrance of Clouds had matched orbit with the Dancer and was closing in to dock. Jonas’s heart sank; he wasn’t sure he could go through with his threat. ‘I can’t let her turn you and the others into servitors,’ he said.

Sir, we’re dead anyway,’ Ayla pleaded. ‘Let her ransom you to your family. You’re the important one. You . . . you knew what Earth looked like.’

On his console’s lidar display, the Remembrance of Clouds was drawing alongside. Jonas’s finger hovered above the control that would overload the reactor, but he found himself unable to press it. Ayla was right: she and the crew were dead, one way or another. Gabriel wouldn’t have wanted Jonas to die like this. There had to be a way out.

He couldn’t beat the ship, but perhaps he could beat the person. He knew Keldra was emotional; he was sure that her anger had been genuine and not an act. She seemed to have enjoyed gloating, so he knew she was cruel. Perhaps he could use that.

He had an idea. Jonas had years of experience with servitor programming, from his time as an Administrator. Keldra didn’t know that, so she wouldn’t expect him to know some of the tricks he did. The servitor combat programme wouldn’t be any use while the ship was being boarded, but if he could save it for the right moment . . .

A shudder ran through the ship as the pirate’s docking lines locked on. The pirates would cut through the Dancer’s cargo bay door and enter the ring through the cargo airlock.

He walked over to Ayla’s chair. ‘Ayla, hold still.’

She looked up, startled but obedient. Jonas put a hand on her shoulder and held the programming spike to the back of her neck, just below the base of her skull. Her eyes glazed over as the spike momentarily took control of her pilot implant. He tapped in his Administrator override code and then loaded the combat programme into the implant’s free space. ‘Prepare to enter dormant mode,’ he said, speaking to the combat programme through Ayla’s ears. ‘Verbal re-activation, my voice, password . . . ’ He searched for a word. ‘Oberon.’

The implant blinked Ayla’s eyes twice, acknowledging its new instructions.

Short-term memory wipe. One minute.’ If this was to work, it was better that Ayla didn’t know. ‘Enter dormant mode now.’

She swayed as the implant released control. Jonas kept his hand on her shoulder to steady her.

Are you all right?’

What happened?’

I think you blacked out for a moment.’

I’m sorry, sir.’

He held the pilot’s gaze. ‘You have nothing to be sorry for.’ He nearly told her that it was his fault, but then stopped himself: she would respond that it wasn’t, and he would be fishing for her forgiveness for what he was about to do. These were her last moments as a free-willed human being and he had no right to make them about him. Instead, he said, ‘you were the best pilot I’ve worked with, and it’s been an honour flying with you.’

There were tears in her eyes, but she managed to smile.

There was a noise outside the door. It sounded like the pirates had reached it, and were preparing to blow the lock. There was no point resisting now. Jonas pressed the door release.

A pirate walked in, a large man dressed in an armoured vacuum suit. A servitor; he walked with a robotic gait, and his face inside the visor was expressionless. He scanned the room with a pistol and then fired quick bursts at Jonas and Ayla.

Jonas’s muscles seized up painfully, rooting him to the spot. A nerve gun, set for paralysis. He could move his eyes and facial muscles a little, but nothing else. The servitor lowered the gun and gave a hand signal to someone in the corridor.

Captain Keldra strode into the room, followed by a second servitor. She was tall, and from the way she was built Jonas guessed she had been raised in at least half gravity, probably more. She wore a yellow armoured vacuum suit, but her helmet was clipped to her belt, leaving her head arrogantly unprotected. She looked around the room critically, then pointed at Ayla.

Spike her.’

Jonas could see the helpless panic in Ayla’s eyes as the first servitor produced an enslavement spike and walked up to her. The servitor held the spike to the back of her neck and there was an unpleasant organic sound as it injected a servitor implant. Her eyes moved wildly for a moment, and she twitched, muscle spasms fighting against the paralysis, as the servitor implant systematically destroyed her higher brain functions and installed its own tendrils in their place. The pirate servitor touched her with an anti-paralyzer but she remained motionless, her mind gone.

Keldra pointed at Jonas. ‘Search him for weapons, and cuff him.’

The first servitor kept Jonas covered with a nerve gun while the second patted him down for weapons, put a pair of cuffs on his wrists, and then released him from the paralysis. Keldra watched smugly.

Make sure your ransom is worth more than the trouble you give me,’ she said.

Jonas nodded silently. He intended to cause her a great deal of trouble – and she’d be getting no ransom, in any case – but for now he had to bide his time.

Keldra’s nerve gun dug into his back as she marched him around the orbital corridor. Any last-ditch resistance the crew had put up was over, and pirates were already beginning to strip equipment from the walls. The pirates were all servitors; he couldn’t see any free-willed humans among Keldra’s crew.

They passed a group of newly mind-wiped mining foremen putting on vacuum suits in preparation for the transfer to the other ship. Keldra prodded Ayla to join them. Now was the moment. Jonas waited a calculated second, and then rushed forward as dramatically as he could.

Ayla! Where are you taking her?’

Keldra grabbed his arm and brought him round to face her. ‘Oh, was she yours?’ she asked. ‘Was she special?’ The cruel smirk was back on her face, as he had hoped. ‘Don’t worry. I’m sure I can find a buyer for a pretty young thing like that.’

She let out a little snorting laugh and undid his cuffs as a servitor pushed a patched and blood-stained vacuum suit into his hands. Jonas kept his eyes on Ayla for as long as he could while he donned the suit, trying to look desperate and dejected. He had to let Keldra think she could use Ayla to hurt him. From the smug look on the pirate’s face, he thought he had succeeded.

They climbed a ladder to the centre of the cargo bay, their weight dropping off until they were in microgravity. Across the gap, the Remembrance of Clouds kept station with the Dancer, its two grav-rings casting spokes of shadow across its cargo bay. The Dancer’s bay was emptying as Keldra’s servitors sent cargo containers along the lines to the pirate ship. She put the cuffs back on Jonas and then clipped them to a personnel transfer line. As it hauled them along, they passed a pair of servitors manoeuvring uranium ore canisters across the gap.

You should have fought,’ Keldra said, suddenly.

What?’ Jonas said.

She pressed the nerve gun against his back. The shock couldn’t penetrate the vacuum suit, but the pointed tip of the weapon pressed in painfully. ‘You ran,’ she said. ‘You people always run. You should have fought.’

Belt Three cover

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