From the author: Even when colonizing the extreme environment of the clouds of Venus, people find ways in which to argue--and murder is the outcome.
Above them, stars; below, the endless roil of leaden clouds that engulfed Venus from pole to pole. Mariana Delahaye watched the radar screen and eyed the autopilot’s trajectory. Beside her, her co-pilot had his feet up on the console. “Relax,” Oluwa Jelani told her. “The computer’s done the flying for months. It’ll handle the docking maneuvers, too.” He laced his hands behind his head. “I don’t get why they need us along for these hauls.”
Mariana shrugged, overriding the autopilot. She loved the feel of the ship, the sensation of wind transmitting into her hands through the controls. She’d flown a C-17 Globemaster back on Earth. She missed it. Her current assignment felt like a glorified trucking gig. “The human mind, Oluwa,” she reminded him, “is our best backup. We’re here to ensure that computer error doesn’t cost thousands of lives.”
Ahead of them, illuminated by Venus’ slow-creeping dawn, a ship hovered. Long, white-tiled, and cylindrical, it hung inside a mesh of carbon-fiber filaments that cradled it below three parallel cigar-shaped balloons, each the length of the ship itself. And trailing behind it? A shimmering filament of silver. At this distance, it looked like spider’s silk, but was as wide as a soccer pitch, though no thicker than a human hair.
These soap-bubble mirrors floated above the clouds, reflecting light and heat, cooling the planet below. It would be centuries before the sulfur clouds precipitated as snow, the carbon in the atmosphere following. Plans called for that “snow” to be paved over with diamond. Locked in place forever. But no one alive today would see it.
“Three balloons?” Oluwa asked. “Why not just one, like a zeppelin back home?”
“Venus requires redundancies,” Mariana reminded him. “Drop below the clouds, and if the pressure doesn’t crush your ship, the heat will charbroil you, and sulfuric acid rain will dissolve whatever remains.” She touched the comm controls. “Qetesh, this is Supply Replenishment Ship 1468. We’re making our final approach, forty kilometers to your southwest. Open the barn doors.”
“SRS-1468, this is the Qetesh,” a pleasant female voice responded. “Captain Tesar sends his compliments, Captain Delahaye. The barn doors are open, but we’re not receiving the autopilot’s handshake.”
Mariana gave Oluwa a sidelong look. “Want to take her in on manual?”
The younger man suddenly pulled his feet off the console as a door on the flat surface of the cylinder opened. “Policy dictates—”
Mariana chuckled. “Policy states that someone with eight thousand flight hours logged can take it in. But even I use autopilot. Liability insurance doesn’t cover idiocy.” She clicked a button on the console. “Bring us in, Qetesh.”
She leaned back. “Now for my safety lecture. There’s no more than a thousand people in each of these habitats. Most of whom are here on twenty-year contracts, or are lifers. They get excited about new faces. Don’t let that go to your head.”
Oluwa frowned. “Why would it?”
Mariana gave him a look. Because you’re a young guy and you’ve spent the last eighteen months cooped up with only me for company. Heck, last time I was here, I hooked up myself, though . . . now’s my chance to figure out if Tesar and I have something real going on, or if it’s just hormones, isolation, and wishful thinking. “I’m just saying, if you find someone friendly, use a condom.”
“And what business is that of yours?”
Mariana rolled her eyes. “I’m staying here to get six months of gravity on my bones,” she replied bluntly. “I won’t be there to laugh when you complain that it burns when you pee on the way home.” Like her son on Earth, Oluwa liked to argue, a trait she found less than endearing.
Oluwa sighed. “Yes, Mother.”
“Can the Mommy crap,” Mariana replied succinctly. To think that I looked forward to having a trainee with me this run, just so I’d have someone to talk to.
Captain Daniil Tesar stood in the cargo bay, watching his people unload supplies from the SRS. “Welcome back, pirate,” he told Mariana with a cheerful public reserve that belied the hundreds of text messages sent between them. Two years had wrought changes; fresh gray sprinkled her dark hair. “How was Earth?”
She made a face. “Only there long enough to see my kids, and then I rotated back out again.”
“Pirate?” her co-pilot asked, his dark eyes sparkling with mischief. “What’s this?”
Mariana grimaced. “I’ve an interest in the Age of Sail.” Tesar chuckled softly. “Your captain might be descended from the female buccaneer, Jacquotte Delahaye.”
“Pirates,” she grumbled. “Overly-romanticized criminals.”
Tesar gestured for them to accompany him. “The autonomy that captains had in those days fascinates me. They were alone out there, and had to enforce order with little more than charisma. I consider each pirate—and each pirate-hunter—a case-study in leadership.”
Mariana nodded, but Oluwa looked bored. “If you don’t need me for anything,” the young man returned, “I’d like to go explore.”
“Don’t get in anyone’s way,” Mariana replied.
“Yes, Mother!” Oluwa called, ducking out of the compartment.
Tesar regarded Mariana. “Your replacement?”
“He’s young,” Mariana replied, shrugging. “Eighteen months without anyone to talk to will make him or break him.” She smiled and gave Tesar a nudge in the ribs. “You up for cards tonight? Maybe your XO, too—what’s his name again? Joshua Lee?”
Tesar’s smile faded. “Lee died last year. His wife had seniority, and wound up as XO.”
Her head rose. “Trouble?” she murmured.
“Something to talk about, but not here,” he replied just as softly. “Look, I’ll invite her tonight. And you can see for yourself.”
“All right,” Mariana acquiesced.
He liked her ability to adapt. A quality he wished more people in his habitat possessed.
Bitna Park-Lee frowned in the command and control center. She hated supply drops. “Venus provides us carbon in abundance,” she muttered, just loudly enough for the young officers at the navigation and communication consoles to hear her. “The 3D printers could manufacture everything we need without recourse to Earth, if we didn’t waste her abundance on these mirrors.”
The communications officer, a young woman of Yoruba ancestry, looked up from where she was monitoring comm traffic from the rest of the habitat fleet. “Sure, commander,” she agreed. “But the printers can’t make egusi seeds. And I can’t make egusi soup without the melons, so I’m stuck ordering seeds from Earth, and begging for space in one of the greenhouses.”
Bitna felt her face tighten. “Luxuries,” she sniffed. “We could do without them.”
The navigator, Jin-kyu Pak, looked up, frowning. Bitna considered him. She thought Jin-kyu might be ready to be recruited—perhaps an encounter between him and Eunseo would soon be in order? “I ordered samgyeopsal,” he noted, however. “Everything else, I can do without, but even from a can, it’s a taste of home. I know it’s a waste of money, but . . .”
Bitna turned away. He’s not as ready as I thought. “Money,” she snorted, checking on another station. “A useless habit of thought. Here we are, two hundred and sixty million kilometers from Earth, and we’re all paid money that we can’t spend. Except for on goods from Earth.” Meals and ‘board’ are provided. The money we earn can be used to buy little luxuries. Chocolate bars from the habitat exchange. But no one here makes any goods that could be traded. There’s no point to the dollars we earn here, or the rubles earned on the Russian habitat. It’s a meaningless gesture to assure us that we aren’t slaves. But none of it has meaning unless we return to Earth. We need to make our own meaning.
Her mind had spun like this even before her husband’s useless death a year ago. But Joshua had talked her out of bitter jags of depression during their first years. “Sweetheart, I know it’s disappointing, but the Mars billets were all filled. And this isn’t so bad, is it? We’re together. That’s what matters, right?”
Except that they’d been trapped inside this windowless ship for years on end, only seeing the same people, the same faces, day in and day out. Claustrophobia hit some people—they’d had a youngster go screaming out an airlock just two years ago, unable to bear the enclosed space any longer. Depression over the pointlessness of their existence had been what hit Bitna. A planet she’d never walk on. A slave to some future generation’s inheritance.
And then Joshua had died. A simple heart attack. And something inside Bitna had snapped. We’re not together. And it’s all so pointless, the way it’s being done.
She’d gone back to work early, taking his position as XO because of her seniority. For a while, her voice had been toneless in public, as she tried to work through the grief and the anger.
But then she’d started dreaming about the planet below. Dreaming that she heard its voice, like a spirit or a ghost. Her rational mind denied it. But . . . it didn’t need to be true. It just needed to be something that other people could believe. Believe in more strongly than they believed in the lies of a distant Earth. We don’t have to be slaves to the future. We can take control of our own lives. Retask the 3D printers for what we need—weapons. Tools. Sabotage the mirror production. Then, when Earth is about to write us off as a bad investment, declare our independence.
Her wrist-unit beeped. “Park-Lee here,” she said, tabbing it.
“XO? Novak here.” The head of security—one of her current lovers, and one of her most ardent supporters—sounded strained. “Can I have a moment?”
Bitna could see the encryption level on his signal. What he had to say, others couldn’t hear. She stepped into the captain’s office beside CIC, and closed the door. “What’s the problem? Be quick—I’m having dinner with Tesar and the pilot of the supply ship in an hour.”
“The co-pilot’s at issue.”
“What about him?” The plan was very specific. They needed sympathetic pilots who could smuggle in weapons, provisions, extra parts and extra medicines. Put their useless money to work in the form of bribes and payoffs. “Did Eunseo make the approach?” I groomed her myself. She should have no difficulties seducing a young man just off eighteen months of isolation on an SRS . . . .
A hesitation. “She did. That’s the problem.”
Tesar remembered the last time he’d played cards with Mariana. He and the pilot had wound up spending a most of the evening on the couch in his quarters, instead. The couch. The floor. The bed.
But these days, he could feel trouble brewing like an itch at the back of his skull. He’d invited two others to join them this evening: Dr. Leane Bierri, the habitat’s psychiatrist, and his executive officer, Bitna Park-Lee.
Bitna sat across the table from him, body language pulled in, face closed as she studied her cards. “Did you know,” he commented, breaking the silence, “that the astronomical symbol for Venus is supposed to be the goddess of love, holding up her mirror?”
“I like that,” Mariana replied with a smile. “Seems pretty on point, given your mission here.”
Silence. Conversation had limped along so far. “I was sorry to hear of your loss,” Mariana told Bitna now, clearly trying to take the other woman’s measure. “I met your husband the last time I passed through.”
“Thank you.” Distant tone. “So, you’re once again passing through?” A clear message in Bitna’s voice: Drop the subject.
Mariana’s eyebrows rose. “Not entirely. I’m going to stay on Aphrodite Station for six months. Maybe longer, if there’s a berth available on one of the habitat ships.” Her eyes flicked towards Tesar. A rueful addendum: “Kind of tired of being out there alone.” A nod at the ceiling.
“Ah, so your co-pilot will be returning to Earth alone, in an empty supply ship.” Bitna set two cards on the table with the precision of a surgeon, accepting two in return from Tesar. “A waste, I think. The SRS ships should be used to take people home to Earth.”
Mariana cleared her throat. “Ah, we do retrieve people at the ends of their contracts, depending on their gravity acclimation. And bring new colonists here.”
“No. I mean we should be sending people home en masse. The ones who don’t have the proper attitude.” Bitna’s expression flickered.
“The proper attitude being?” Dr. Bierri prompted.
“If we must remain, then we shouldn’t change this planet. We should live lightly above her, without skimming her atmosphere for carbon to wrap her in veils of her own substance. Hiding her face won’t change her. She’ll eventually rebel and destroy us all, if we try.”
“Venus didn’t destroy Joshua,” Dr. Bierri murmured.
“I didn’t say she did.”
Tesar had long been aware of Bitna’s anger and resentment; she’d requested that Mission Control send her home after Joshua’s death, but no replacement could be sent for her for eighteen to twenty-four months, thanks to the logistics of spaceflight. So she’d stewed, and her resentment seemed to be infectious. “Strange opinions, considering you requested this assignment,” he pointed out, catching Bierri’s warning head-shake.
“Joshua volunteered,” Bitna replied stonily. “He wanted Mars. The waiting lists were too long, so he put us up for Venus. And look what it got him. Little more than slavery and death.”
Tesar opened his mouth to retort, but a knock at his door forestalled him. A crewman poked her head around the hatch, her eyes wide. “Sir,” she whispered. “There’s a problem.”
“Yes?” he asked, impatiently.
A look of consternation. “A body’s been found, sir,” she replied, darting a glance at Mariana. “It’s the co-pilot from the SRS.”
Mariana stood in the clinic, looking down at Oluwa’s body, naked under its sheet. He looked smaller, devoid of the restless energy that had marked him in life. The habitat’s medical doctors had already done an autopsy, not that much of one had been required; multiple stab wounds spoke for themselves. “What did you get into?” she murmured, putting a hand on the gurney, her throat suddenly constricting. He’d been too much like her son back on Earth, she realized with a sudden rush of guilt. It had colored how she treated him—brushing off his questions and arguments brusquely.
Distantly, the doctors’ words to Tesar filtered through her consciousness. “Indications of a struggle, but no DNA under his fingernails. Evidence of recent sexual activity, but someone cleaned his body before dumping it in the waste disposal area. It would’ve gone out with the next load of unreclaimables to burn in the atmosphere. We’re lucky the greenhouse crew found him.” The doctor sounded dispirited. “I used to work an ER in Chicago, Captain. I thought I’d put my days of violent crime behind me.”
Mariana’s head rose. “They washed him in bleach and threw him away like trash.” Dull words. Forcing her mind to work through it.
“It gets worse,” Tesar acknowledged grimly. “Security cams didn’t pick up anyone moving through the corridors with a body. Or anyone entering the disposal area till the botany crew showed up. Whoever did this knows how to hijack security systems.”
Or is a member of your security team, Mariana thought. “I told him to stay out of people’s beds,” she replied emptily. “Could be a crime of passion. Jealousy.”
“Could be,” the doctor put in, moving to the other side of the gurney. “But he probably didn’t know it was coming. The first stab came from behind, but caught on a rib—” she pulled back the sheet, and Mariana’s mind went blank again. He wasn’t your son. But he called you Mother, and he laughed . . . .
She felt Tesar’s hand on her shoulder, guiding her away from the body. Gratefully, she took gulps of clean air in a side office. Then raised her head and met his eyes. “When we catch the son of a bitch who did this, what are the options?”
Tesar sighed and pushed a chair towards her. “We’re technically under maritime law here,” he explained, leaning against the desk. “The Qetesh is considered a U.S.-flagged ship, which means that for lesser offenses . . . eh. Bunk arrest or uncompensated work for limited durations. For medium offenses? Exile to another habitat. Return to Earth, but that’s . . . expensive.”
“How about murder?” Mariana countered.
He looked away. “I could sentence a murderer to death or life imprisonment. There’s no jury in maritime law. There’s just me.” Tesar exhaled, looking grim. “Life imprisonment’s a problem. A life sentence here means one less person on my crew to do the work that keeps everyone else alive. And one more person taking up food and air, so that people on a waiting list to have kids have to wait that much longer to have them.”
“So you drop them out the same garbage hatch that they slated for Oluwa,” she countered, astounded at how distant her voice sounded.
Tesar grimaced. “I could,” he acknowledged. “But I also have to get the people still aboard to line up behind that idea. Enforcing the law gains me their respect. But depending on who’s responsible . . . it might become one of those leadership case-studies I mentioned earlier. Like pirate captains needing to maintain the loyalties of their crews.”
She wanted to spit. Wanted to deny that political reality had anything to do with justice. But he regarded her with such steady patience, that she took a breath to calm herself. “What the hell’s going on here, Daniil?”
“I haven’t been able to prove anything,” he replied slowly. “But our rate of mirror deployment is down by nearly twenty percent in the past six months. Equipment keeps breaking down. Spare parts get lost, or the 3D printers jam when trying to manufacture new ones. Oxygen scrubbers go off-line.”
“Sabotage?” she asked, blinking. Who’d sabotage the very habitat that’s keeping them alive?
He nodded. “Security’s found no evidence, but that’s my suspicion. I don’t know if Oluwa’s death is related. I hope not. And I don’t know if my own XO is involved. If she’s the cause, or if her attitude is a symptom, or if it’s all just coincidence.” He ran a hand through his hair tiredly. “I’ve had Dr. Bierri listening to the crew’s concerns; a number of them seem to echo Bitna’s sentiments. Some of them just want to go home, I think. They signed twenty-year contracts and then realized that they didn’t like it here, but it’s . . . hard to cancel the contract and go back. Others . . .” he shrugged. “There’s crosstalk from the other captains that some of their crews are upset at being subject to the maritime laws of Earth. That they want elected representatives and self-governance.”
“Except you’re on a ship, with qualified people who’ve trained to operate it, and you can’t and shouldn’t be electing people who don’t have the training to run it.”
“Choir. Preaching.” Tesar grimaced. “Let’s get on with the investigation. I’ll be fascinated to hear what security has to say.”
Mariana stood in the security room, listening to Tesar and Bitna Park-Lee speak to the head of security. Ephraim Novak was a tall man with a surprisingly weathered face. “You’re saying that all the video and logs from the entire station were deleted between 17:00 and 19:00? Down to who opened which doors?” Tesar asked incredulously.
“Whoever did it, clearly didn’t want their route discernible through omission. And probably easier just to do a full sweep of the files,” Novak replied, shaking his head.
“Are the files recoverable?” Bitna asked in her precise manner. “Surely you have ways of reconstituting lost data.”
Novak shook his head again. “They knew what they were doing. The data’s gone.”
“Which implies that it would be a member of your staff, given that whoever did it also got into your secure system.” Tesar bit off the ends of his words.
Novak’s brows beetled. “I trust my people, Captain!”
Mariana wanted to snap, Well, someone did this. Instead she put in quietly, “Then we’ll do this the old-fashioned way. Verify the whereabouts of everyone aboard through interviews. Start with the video of when Oluwa and I came aboard and see where he went, up to the missing portions of the record. Gives us a start, anyway.”
Novak’s eyes glittered in the low light. “I’m sure that one of the command staff needs to be involved in the questioning.”
Tesar frowned. “I’ll do it.”
Bitna raised her hands. “Delegation,” she reminded him, “is both a privilege and a perquisite. Let me handle this.”
Tesar’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly, she’s quite cooperative, Mariana thought. “If you wouldn’t mind,” she put in, “I’d like to sit in on the interrogations. I wouldn’t interfere,” she added, looking at Novak. “I’d just observe.” And keep an eye on them both.
Novak blinked, a faint smile wreathing his face. “Certainly, Captain Delahaye. But I’d like to start with my people. So we can get on with actually investigating.”
“Makes sense,” Tesar acknowledged. “Of course, we’ll have to verify your whereabouts, too, Novak. Just to be sure.”
Novak snorted. “I was giving Eunseo Kwon a talking-to over sanitation protocols. She’ll vouch for it.”
“For two hours?” Bitna asked mildly.
“No, that was the first fifteen minutes. The rest was spent standing over her, making sure she used bleach and disinfectants, and stored them properly in the chemical locker when done. You can’t leave caustic crap sitting out.”
Bleach, something said at the back of Mariana’s mind, the killer bleached Oluwa after they stripped him. She flinched, not wanting to think about it.
The others left the room ahead of her, and Tesar squeezed her shoulder as she passed. “Hey,” he murmured quietly. “This isn’t really how I’d planned your first day here.”
She nodded, leaning into him for a moment. “Me, either,” Mariana replied wearily. “It’s not all high drama here, right? I mean, I’ve spent enough time in flight between here and Earth to be tired of boredom, but this kind of excitement is a little much all at once.” She tried to make it sound like a joke, but failed.
“Usually, the worst drama we have is when the number three balloon has sprung a leak, and someone needs to go outside and patch it.” He looked rueful. “I can promise day after day of absolute boredom. It’s a major selling point, I know.”
In the corridor, Mariana caught Novak and Bitna’s thoughtful looks in her direction. No one was supposed to know there was anything going on between us till we were sure ourselves. But maybe I’m just paranoid. It’s not like they caught me on the walk of shame back to guest quarters, right?
Tesar sat at a table, regarding Eunseo Kwon, while Dr. Bieri tapped at a tablet beside him. He’d handled enough disciplinary proceedings to know how to create psychological tension in someone’s head. Intimidation didn’t need to be about physical force. It could be about suggesting that you knew more than they wanted you to know.
Having Dr. Bieri in the room suggested that there were files involved. That someone knew something. That the psychiatrist was here to be a witness, to attest that there was no duress used in this questioning, to take notes, and maybe give him some advice . . . was beside the point.
Power was force applied to a point. And at the moment, Eunseo was the only point on which Tesar could focus anything.
So he remained silent, because silence had power, too. It created uncertainty in people’s heads. He stared at Eunseo until her shoulders shifted uncomfortably. And as he’d thought she might, Eunseo broke the silence first. “Captain, why am I here?”
Tesar didn’t reply directly. He flicked a finger at the screen embedded in the conference table, bringing up clips from other interviews. First, a stevedore from the docking area, Juan Mendez. “Yeah, I saw the new pilot. Instant celebrity. You know how it goes.”
Then, a female environmental engineer with whom Eunseo worked. “Of course I saw him. Eunseo made an ass of herself over him.” Jealousy in the voice. “Kept laughing like everything he said was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. I hope they used protection. There are at least ten people on the list ahead of her to have kids—”
Sweat trickled from Eunseo’s hairline, and she licked her lips nervously.
Tesar broke his silence. “Whoever erased the security footage forgot that people have eyes. Memories.” He glanced at Bieri. “You want to tell us what happened next, Ms. Kwon? How a night of passion ended with a young man dead in an air-lock, his body scrubbed . . . though not of every important particle of evidence.”
This was true. Whoever had cleaned the body had gotten most of it, but there had been a few traces of Eunseo’s DNA.
Eunseo licked her lips again, remaining silent. Tesar shrugged. “I can turn this over to the doctors. They’ll do a physical evaluation. All evidence to add to the total.”
“Captain . . . sir . . .” Her eyes flicked to Bieri, who met her gaze with clinical dispassion. “It was an accident! I didn’t mean to!” Tears streamed from her eyes.
Ah, Tesar thought. Our first lie. The detective confronting the suspect, resulting in an immediate confession was a fiction promulgated by bad vids. The breaking-down process would take time—maybe more than he had. “An accident,” Tesar replied, nodding. “He fell on a knife twelve times by accident.”
A sudden ashen expression crossed Eunseo’s face. Dr. Bieri leaned in now, murmuring, “I don’t doubt that your regret is sincere, Ms. Kwon.” Her voice held soothing tones. “But I think that you’ll feel better if you tell us the truth. Perhaps you’ll be able to work out some kind of a reduced sentence with the captain.”
Eunseo swallowed. “I . . . want a lawyer.”
“We don’t have lawyers here,” Tesar pointed out. “You’d need one versed in admiralty law, anyway. And under maritime law, you are guilty until proven innocent.”
A flash of rage. “You’re a dictator! She’s right about you—” Eunseo suddenly snapped her teeth shut, eyes widening as if she realized that she’d just slipped.
You all signed contracts indicating that you accepted living here under maritime law, Tesar wanted to point out. You should probably read the fine print before just clicking I accept. But that sort of statement would diminish his authority. Would lower him to arguing petty details, and right now, he needed to assert his power. Project it into Eunseo’s mind.
“Who’s right?” Dr. Bieri asked in her quiet, understated way. “Talk to me, Eunseo. Help me understand you.”
And Eunseo turned towards that offer of hope like a flower towards the sun. She licked her lips, and began to speak.
In a sealed-off compartment, Bitna glared at Ephraim Novak. “What were you and Eunseo thinking? We aren’t ready for the next phase.”
Public revelation of the movement was at least two years away on the timeline. “Eunseo moved too fast,” Novak whispered. It didn’t matter that he’d disabled the cameras near this compartment; a raised voice could still be heard in the corridor outside. “Once she’d slept with him, she thought he was secure enough to talk into some preliminary smuggling.” His lips twisted. “He started to unravel. He’d have gone to his captain, and she’d have gone to Tesar and Mission Control. She panicked and stabbed him.” He paused. “I made her clean up the body. So that she’d understand her mistakes have consequences.”
“I never authorized killing,” Bitna snapped, her dark eyes suddenly fierce.
“Tell her that!”
“Believe me, I will! She’s made the situation worse—and by trying to hide the body, you have, too! It could have been smoothed over as—a date gone wrong. If he was dead already, all she would have had to do is say he raped her—“
“The doc’s too sharp for that one to fly, and you know it.” Novak grimaced, looking away.
“You wanted concealment, but all you’ve done is shine a spotlight on us!”
“I did it for you,” Novak insisted. “If it comes down to it, we can run with the rape story, and I’ll say I was trying to protect a frightened young woman.” He reached out, hoping that she’d take his hand.
She’d first taken him into her quarters six months ago. And over soju, she’d confided in him that she’d had troubling dreams. In which she heard the planet telling her that they shouldn’t be here. At least not in the way Earth intended them to be. That they needed to be here for the planet. To make themselves Venusian, as much as they could, rather than to make Venus into another Earth.
It had sounded crazy at first, but the longer she’d spoken about casting off the rules of Earth, the old laws that constrained them, and establishing new ones that made sense for their new reality, the more it had all made sense to him.
Novak had grown up in Montana. He had a rancher’s instinctive distrust of government. He was head of security; he understood the need for law and order. But at the same time, he wanted those laws to be his laws. Not the hodgepodge of rules that governed the habitat fleet, each ship under the flag of a meaningless nation on a distant planet. And while he understood the chain of command, it grated on him that there was no way he could ever ascend. The captain was the captain. Novak could stay in his own job for decades, but he’d never get an ounce more say in decisions. And there was no way to change that. Any new captain would be one imposed on them by Mission Control back on Earth. Would be a newcomer, a stranger, with no idea how things actually worked here.
There were others in the fleet who felt the same way. Novak had monitored the fleet’s message boards for security purposes long enough to have absorbed information about the factions on the thirty habitats floating above the lethal clouds. But he’d downplayed the autonomists to his captain in security briefings. Mostly because he’d always sympathized with them, but also because they’d been disorganized and leaderless . . . until Bitna came along.
They’d become lovers. He knew that she had others—Eunseo, probably that kid Jin-kyu, maybe Atinuke. It didn’t bother him. A new world. New rules. And to hell with Earth.
Now, Bitna frowned, but accepted his hand. She’ll come around. She’s got the level, pragmatic head of a quartermaster. “No,” she finally decided. “I’ll take responsibility—when we’re ready.” A pause. “Since you’ve engineered a crisis point, perhaps it’s time that the movement has its moment in the sun.” Bitna pursed her lips. “Still, we need a way to get off this station. Otherwise, Tesar will eventually corner us. And we can’t overthrow him without a clear majority of the population voting for us. Which takes it from mutiny to democracy.”
He didn’t like her continued suggestions of blame, but let it pass for the moment. “If he starts a witch-hunt looking for the murderer, we’ll get that majority,” Novak replied, nodding. It sounded good. “But there’s already a way off the station. For us, and for the rest of our people.”
Her eyes narrowed. “The supply ship?”
“Plenty of room. Still has the supplies set for the other habitats. We make a run to the Chinese-flagged habitat. No extradition treaties, currently.” Novak felt a smile stretch his face. “We just need a pilot.”
In a break between interrogations, Mariana slumped, mind churning. Who would kill Oluwa after a day on the station? Did he flirt with the wrong person? Did he see something he wasn’t supposed to?
Finally, Bitna and Novak joined her. “I just got word from my team,” Novak said, tapping his earpiece. “They found several people with whom your co-pilot spoke before the missing logs started. I’m going to go talk to them—want to come along?”
“You don’t want to bring them here for questioning?” Mariana asked, raising her eyebrows.
Novak shook his head. “Don’t want to spook them,” he replied easily. “Just a little one-on-one at first. Or three on one, if you both come along.” A friendly smile.
Mariana nodded. “I appreciate the chance to help.”
Bitna nodded, smiling. “Where to?”
“G level, section four.”
“Near the cargo bays?” Mariana knew that much of the station layout. They smile so much without Tesar around, don’t they?
“He did a lot of talking with the stevedores and maintenance crew.” Novak waved them out the hatch.
Near the cargo bays, Mariana’s wrist-unit buzzed. She glanced down, noting a text coming in from Tesar, but could only see the first few lines of the message—Novak involved, security compr—
She spun, just in time to watch Novak seize Bitna, wrap one thick arm around her neck, and press his gun to her forehead. “Keep going,” Novak grated. “Your ship’s just ahead. Move!”
“Do what he says,” Bitna gasped as if her air supply had been cut off.
Mariana’s heart pounded. Bleach, she thought numbly. Talking to that girl about bleach. He just about waved it in our faces, didn’t he? And now he’s got the XO in a headlock, ready to kill her. Damn him!
Something nagged at her, some errant thought she couldn’t focus on while adrenaline and stress cortisol hammered through her brain. A few feeble thoughts made their way through the storm—should I scream? No, he’ll shoot her and then grab me . . . shouldn’t someone see this on the security cameras?
And as she trudged onwards, feeling weak and old in the gravity to which her body remained unaccustomed, her mind circled around one numb thought: He killed Oluwa. He stabbed him. Tried to throw him out the airlock. He’s the one.
Her hands shook.
They reached the SRS, and crew members scrambled out of their way as Novak alternated keeping the pistol on Bitna and on anyone who approached. Then he rapped out, “Open the doors and get in. We’ll be behind you.”
Once inside, he pressed her towards the cockpit. Ordered her to strap in, adding, “You’re going to have a different cargo this time. People.”
Mariana temporized. “I can’t lift off with the cargo bay doors closed—”
“Tesar will open them,” Bitna said coolly, stepping away as Novak released her. She reached towards his belt and drew his backup pistol. “We’ve got you, after all. I wondered why he seemed to be looking forward to this supply drop.” She paused and then addressed Novak. “I’ll guard her. Open communications and give Tesar our demands.” She clicked the safety off and smiled faintly at Mariana.
Mariana closed her eyes. That was the thought that had refused to coalesce. All their damn smiles. “This ship hasn’t refueled,” she pointed out. Giving herself time to think. Inhale, exhale. More oxygen for the brain. Calm the body so the mind can follow.
“It has enough to get us to the next habitat. One without an extradition treaty.” Bitna’s voice held a smirk. “Might as well make use of these hodgepodge laws. Show people how idiotic the system really is. Earth’s laws, governing another planet. Trying to make a new Earth here. This is Venus. We need our own laws for our own world.”
“Practiced saying that a lot?” Mariana asked, trying to put irony in her voice. Get inside their heads. “Guess if you say anything often enough, you can make yourself believe it. I mean, it’s not like you’ll ever be independent of Earth. You still need supply drops just to get by.”
“Shut up,” Bitna ordered, her eyes narrowing.
Behind them, Mariana could hear Novak talking with Tesar by radio. Making their demands. “. . . that you allow all those who do not wish to live under of maritime law to leave with us. Or hold immediate open elections, including a referendum on the laws that govern this colony.”
Pirates, Mariana thought, boiling. They’re so quick to use the language of freedom to attain their own ends, but if they got their way, they’d turn the Qetesh into their own private dictatorship.
“I want to see her,” Tesar insisted, his voice strained.
Novak turned the screen towards her, so that its camera caught her face. “Say hello,” he ordered. “Tell the captain that he’d better give us what we want.”
Mariana considered her options. Assets, liabilities. She hadn’t handled a gun since boot camp. No hand-to-hand training, and she’d spent the last eighteen months in effectively zero-G conditions. Strength and confrontation were out as solutions. All she had was her mind . . . and her knowledge of her ship. Eight modular sections, back to back, like an old-fashioned train. Each of them could be shut down and separated from the rest in the event of a hull breach. This is my ship. You don’t know it the way I do. That’s my only advantage.
And as her thoughts calmed and centered, Bitna jabbed her with the muzzle of the gun. “Speak up,” the other woman ordered peremptorily.
Mariana looked up at the camera. “Tesar,” she said clearly, hoping that this wouldn’t be the last time she spoke to him. That this wouldn’t be the last image he had of her face. “They’re serious. Open the cargo bay doors. I’ll take them where they need to go.” Straight to hell, hopefully. She looked directly into his eyes, hoping he understood her message. “If any of their friends want to come along for the ride, I’ll take them there, too. People should know what happens when they fly the black, right? Me, I’m flying the red.”
As she’d hoped, Bitna only looked confused. She’d probably understood fly in space when Mariana meant under the pirate flag. Pirates had raised a black flag to signal intent to board a ship and take its cargo.
A red flag, however, meant no quarter. All aboard would be killed.
Tesar’s expression tautened for a moment. Message received. Forcibly taking over someone else’s ship? Piracy. Can’t put them in a brig. Can’t hold them prisoner on my ship for an eighteen-month trip back to Earth. Go to another habitat, and I’m still a hostage . . . no, it’s this. A bad chance. Barely a chance at all. But better than nothing.
They bound her hands with zip-ties and fastened her legs to her pilot’s seat as they waited for any of their followers willing to join them. Mariana noted with distant satisfaction that only a handful of people seemed willing to stand as the public allies of hijackers. And when they both turned their backs briefly to welcome the newcomers aboard, she took her chance. Tapped a button on her control board that lit up an alarm button.
As the station’s cargo bay doors opened, Bitna pushed the muzzle of her gun against the back of Mariana’s neck once again. “No mistakes,” she warned the pilot.
“Lady, if I make a mistake right now, I’ll take out the cargo bay doors and risk the lives of a thousand decent people.” Mariana didn’t have to fake the tremor in her bound hands as she tapped controls. “I’d be a lot better at this if you’d cut these off of me.”
“No way,” Novak snapped as they eased out into the upper atmosphere.
Mariana felt the buffet and pressure of wind through the controls like a lover’s caress. Not yet. Need to be further from the habitat just in case things go south.
Five kilometers. Ten. Fifteen.
She sucked in a breath and whispered, “Oh, that’s not good.”
Novak’s head spun. “What?”
“There’s a problem in bay eight.” Mariana pointed at the flashing indicator. “Just started. Looks like one of your crew left a hatch unsealed when they finished unloading supplies. I can’t close it from here.” She shook her head. “Even at this altitude, the pressure’s going to rip through each compartment!”
Their eyes widened. Panic set in. You scare someone enough, their front-brain shuts down. Cortisol in their blood locks out rational thought, and they make bad decisions. They’re already stressed, and I just poked the biggest fear button anyone on this planet has. Don’t let them think! “Don’t just stand there!” Mariana snapped with all the authority of a captain on her own ship. “Someone needs to grab the spacesuits in the third module and go close the damn door!”
Novak spun and ran for the door. She expected that. He was a security chief, and his job remained putting himself between others and danger. Bitna wavered. “For god’s sake!” Mariana yelped, again not having to fake the fear in her voice, “You’ve got me tied to my chair, piloting a ship I can’t even put on autopilot right now, because you want a custom destination! What am I going to do besides pee myself up here? Help him! Or we’re all going to die. Some slow. Some fast. Take your pick!”
For an instant, she thought she’d pushed too hard. Bitna’s eyes glittered in the lights of the control panels and the gun wavered one last time.
And then she turned and ran after Novak, sealing the cockpit door behind her.
Mariana’s head sagged. Then she forced herself to look up. To watch where they were on the cabin monitors. Saw them clamber into pressure suits and then enter module eight, clearly expecting alien atmosphere, crushing pressure, a hatch in need of sealing, yet finding . . . nothing . . . she touched another button on her console.
The one marked Disengage.
The rearmost module unlatched from the rest of her ship and plummeted into the clouds of sulfur dioxide below. She couldn’t, thankfully, hear their screams, but she could see how their bodies flew up off the floor to hit the ceiling. Saw the goods destined for another habitat tumbling around them. Saw the walls starting to press in around them as the pressure of the inner atmosphere closed around them like a fist. They’ll be dead before they hit the ground, she thought numbly. This was the only answer.
It didn’t make it feel any less like murder.
Mariana pressed several other controls, locking the cockpit off from the rest of the ship. And then she swung the ship back around on approach for the habitat, tapping at the radio controls with fingers starting to swell from the zipties around her wrists.
“Qetesh, this is SRS-1468 returning to base. Minus one module, minus two pirates. Do you want the remainder of their associates alive, or do I drop them to the surface, too?”
Tesar’s voice, ragged with relief. “SRS-1468 . . . Mariana, it’s good to hear your voice. We left the barn doors open for you. Come on home. We’ll take care of your prisoners. And of you.”
Mariana wanted to close her eyes and weep. But she couldn’t do that. Not yet. She still had a job to do.
As she brought the ship in on manual, glanced out of one of the small windows of the cockpit, and saw her ship—and herself, tiny inside—reflected in one of the vast mirrors spun by the Qetesh. Half in shadow, half in light, reflected there, in Venus’ skies, she hoped that she had, at last, truly come home.
This story originally appeared in Compelling Science Fiction.