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The Erebus system, with three habitable planets, a gas giant, and dozens of moons, was the second of the binary pair in the triple-star system, and the only star Jerok had ever circled. Like its twin sister, Tiliri, the Orange Dwarf was young, active, and surrounded by endless possibilities.

 

  For Jerok and his ship, that meant trade with new colonies. Few outposts were self-sufficient, and space was a brutal lover. Merchant ships like his were a lifeline they relied upon, and the supplies they carried ranged from minerals to people, as long as they functioned.

 

  At just under 60 meters long, the Koa wasn’t the most massive freighter, but it was home to Jerok and his crew. The 55-cycle old patrol boat once monitored shipping lanes, checked logs, and maintained order until it became obsolete. Once The Union decommissioned her, she became just another re-purposed boat in the float.

 

  “What’s going on, Aya?” Jerok’s arms hung lifeless as he floated towards his shuttle’s roof. “I thought you handled this.”

 

  Zero-G was fun as a kid, not so much when he had deliveries. There was a limit to how long he could swim through the air.

 

  “Not on my end, Jer,” Ayana replied, in her typical carefree voice. “Communications are fine, probably a seized clamp.”

 

  Ayana’s sweet voice sounded like the raspy wheeze of a dying man over the old headsets. He meant to buy new earpieces, but they still worked, and he had more important things to fix, such as seized clamps.

 

  “Red, I need you to help me up here,” Jerok called to the ship’s mechanic. “Aya thinks we have a docking clamp problem.”

 

  “Gonna need about 10… maybe 15 minutes to finish what I’m doing, boss,” Red said, in a voice so deep it made Jerok’s ear tingle through the headset. “Found myself in a situation.”

 

  He didn’t want the details. Knowing Red as long as he had, a situation could be anything from a snapped valve to a personal bathroom crisis. A malfunctioning clamp wasn’t something he could fix on his own, though, not without potentially breaking something else.

 

  Jerok wasn’t a talented mechanic and didn’t trust himself enough to work on anything without Red. But he could check on the problem. After putting on the thin-line pressurized suit, one of his first purchases, he checked the mask and seals before stepping into the airlock.

 

  “I’m heading down now,” Jerok said over the comm channel to Ayana and Red.

 

  “You all green, Boss?”

 

  “System checks out, manual connection’s secure too,” Jerok replied.

 

  “I got you on cameras, Jer. You’re all set,” Ayana said.

 

  Jerok gave a thumb up to the camera then pulled the red lever, sealing himself off and vacating the air. The pressure gauge dropped, and the green light next to it stopped blinking, giving the all-clear.

 

  He tethered himself to the grappling hooks on the shuttle’s body and pressed down until he stood on the hull of the silver tube-like ship, then switched tethers. Jerok had never seen it personally, but he heard stories of shuttles breaking free and pulling anyone tethered to it for a ride. He wanted to avoid that.

 

  “I’m getting a look at it now, Red,” Jerok said. He pushed his glove into the clamp boot that provided cushioning between the shuttle’s hull and the eight-foot clamping arm, but it didn’t budge. “It’s definitely jammed.”

 

  “We gonna need to cut anything?” Red asked. “Should I bring the grinder?”

 

  If they had to cut something, it meant more repairs at the station, but he couldn’t afford to miss out on a job because of a clamp. Clamp boots weren’t too expensive, and the half meter he would get from cutting through would be enough. He wanted to avoid that, though.

 

  “I think we can pry it, but it might be a good idea to bring the grinder.”

 

  “You got it, Boss,” Red replied in a more excited tone than usual. “I’m almost done on my end.”

 

  “Stop calling me Boss,” Jerok said, knowing full well he wouldn’t.

 

  Not much changed between them, even after Ayana married Red. But when he offered them the job, Red took to calling him, Boss. His friends married, and Jerok understood Ayana and Red had a closer relationship now, but he didn’t want a cold title like Boss.

 

  While waiting for Red, Jerok secured himself to the ship’s outer hull, and out of habit, wiped his hand across his helmet like he was removing sweat from his brow. When they retrofitted the ship to hold a proper shuttle, he remembered how excited he was.

 

  The Union didn’t design old patrol boats with gravity wells in mind; they were heavy and meant to stay in the float, so the only work they took was between stations. A proper shuttle opened doors, though, which meant higher-paying jobs.

 

  “Right behind you, Boss.”

 

  Not expecting Red to suit up so quick, Jerok turned his body and was thankful Red hadn’t been out on the hull already. Whenever someone took a walk outside, everyone on the crew had to know.

 

  “You didn’t tell me you got the Bot back online.”

 

  “Just finished it up.”

 

  Making its way across the hull, the large Bot equipped with a variety of tools was a pleasant surprise. A re-purposed Bot wasn’t ideal, but it was invaluable for hull work and other harsh environment-related tasks. The only problem was how often it got damaged. Bots were strong, but not perfect for the job.

 

  “You know,” Jerok said while closing his eyes. “Now and then you surprise me, Red.”

 

  “What’s that supposed to mean?” Red pretended Jerok’s words hurt.

 

  “Nothing, let’s just pry this thing open so I can get these supplies delivered.”

 

  Without replying, the Bot tethered its frame to the hull brackets next to the malfunctioning clamp and removed a large, 1.5-meter alloyed bar from its back. After confirming with Ayana that the lock wasn’t engaged, the Bot wedged the bar between the black clamp boot and the gray shuttle hull, then gently pried it away, ensuring the pressure wasn’t enough to bend the bar or damage the hull.

 

  The boot compressed and created a gap wide enough for the shuttle to release, but before Jerok told Red to stop, the Bot jumped and jammed the bar down. Thankfully, the clamp didn’t break, and the bar didn’t bend; however, something else altogether happened. The bar remained, as did the Bot, but its left arm floated away.

 

  “Red…” Jerok paused and took in the situation.

 

  An awkward silence lasted several minutes between the two men, but finally, Red answered. “Yeah, Boss?”

 

  Jerok chuckled to himself. “Wasn’t it the leg that was having problems?”

 

  After a brief pause, Red replied, “It works now. So, should I get the arm then?”

 

  “No, don’t worry,” Jerok replied. “Grab the bar and head back. The shuttle’s free, I’ll get the arm.”

 

  Turning his body to look into the vastness of space while the Bot disappeared, he took a deep breath and exhaled to calm himself. The giant behind them was amazing as always, and if it wasn’t for the radiation, he’d spend hours staring at its swirling patterns.

 

  That was the charm of space. It’s never-ending beauty and views Jerok didn’t think people could appreciate through a headset. It was impossible to take in the thrill of exploration while sitting in a chair.

 

  Their hearts would never beat like it wanted to burst through their chest. And they’d never understand the pain of watching credits float from their ship into the void of space. It was what drove him forward, and what would most likely lead him to an early grave.

 

***

 

  The ground crunched beneath Jerok’s weighted boots as he stepped onto the icy blue surface of the third moon around the fourth planet. In his opinion, the gas giant was the most beautiful planetary body in the three-star system.

 

At 1.3 Au from its parent star, Erebus IV, and its moons laid outside the habitable zone, but the tidal heating, thick nitrogen atmosphere, and strong magnetic field made terraforming IV-C a genuine possibility.

 

  The moon’s single continent spanned equally on both sides of the boundary line caused by tidal locking. One side offered magnificent views of its parent and the other ignorant of the body it orbited. The icy moon was home to three new colonies, each trying to out-compete the other, and were at the forefront of the boom in Helium and Lanthanide shipments.

 

  Corporations bought any He-3 on the market, and it was impossible to find Holmium that didn’t have an owner moments after arriving on a station. It was so bad that he wondered how long it would take before they stripped the atmosphere of the gas giant and mined the system bare of Lanthanides.

 

  He hated transporting Lanthanides. Most ships the size of Koa didn’t handle the magnetic properties well, but the prices were too good. They had uses from rails to field generators, so the demand was always high; this was different, though.

 

  Because of the enormous quantities requested, new colonies formed anywhere large deposits occurred and geological surveys sold for 100,000 credits or more.

 

  Of the new colonies that formed on the moon, the one he landed next to was the youngest and least developed. They were the best colonies for independent merchants.

 

  Established settlements and mining corporations created long-term contracts, which he had no wish to enter. Although deals guaranteed a consistent flow of credits, they shackled ships to specific trading routes, and most contracts were five-cycles or longer.

 

  He saw movement on a rough road that led to the platform and zoomed onto it through his helmet. A flatbed with two large Bots flanked each side on the back of the vehicle, and inside the cab sat a single driver. They were probably his ride. He contacted the settlement earlier, and because the landing pad was remote, their leader sent a driver for supplies.

 

  After the truck parked beside him, Jerok synced his headset and asked the man stepping out, “Are you Davus?”

 

  Other than a name, Jerok had no information on his driver. He wasn’t too worried, as stealing supplies from a merchant earned a black mark, and nobody delivered to black-marked colonies. A certain amount of trust existed within the system. Successful settlements had friends with ships.

 

  Static crackled from the incoming transmission, and the man finally replied, “The Village Chief sent me. You must be Jerok.”

 

  He hadn’t heard the title Village Chief used in the five-cycles since he began working independently. It wasn’t a common title for a leader, but it told him something about the colony.

 

  The Union considered colonists that created their own government separatists, and separatist outposts with more than 1,000 residents disappeared. He didn’t take issue with separatists, but not every merchant felt that way. They’d need to become self-dependent.

 

  “That’s me,” Jerok replied. “I have everything you ordered in the cargo hold. You can back the flatbed up, and I’ll lower the ramp for your Bots.”

 

  The salvaged shuttle that required half a cycle to repair and retrofit wasn’t large, but it handled the jobs they’d taken. He’d spent 40,000 credits integrating the power system, and a full charge allowed for three successful launches against a 0.5g gravity well.

 

  Although it had its problems, the shuttle was an excellent investment and a lifesaver in case of an emergency. If anything ever happened to the Koa, the shuttle could hold his three-person crew for 25 days.

 

  With the ramp down, the Bots loaded the medical equipment, agricultural supplies, temporary food rations, and sequencers for vat-grown protein onto the flatbed. At just over a quarter g, unloading the crates was no problem for a person, but the Bots were convenient.

 

  After strapping everything to the bed, Jerok closed up his shuttle and entered the cab towards the village.

 

  “How many people in your settlement?” He wasn’t much for small-talk, but Davus hadn’t said a word other than confirming who he was, and Jerok hoped to glean a bit of information before walking into a negotiation.

 

  “Two-hundred so far, but we have another ship arriving five days from now with close to 300 family members.”

 

  “So, you’re building a town then?”

 

  Davus shifted in his seat and looked out the window before clearing his throat, “No, not really. Just a small-scale family operation.”

 

  Jerok could tell from his fidgeting that the question left him uncomfortable, so he didn’t press him and sat silently. Anybody building a town in Union-controlled space would be apprehensive about handing out too many details.

 

  The law required merchants to provide trade reports with settlements, so details were unavoidable unless they fenced the products on the black market. He was no friend of The Union, though, and most independent merchants dipped their toes in gray areas.

 

  He’d never put his friends into those situations, but to survive, he’d pick up work on the side if it wasn’t too dangerous and the pay was good. Jerok had been to plenty of rough colonies more miserable than this.

 

  The colony wasn’t much more than metal domes and a long stretch of hull used for the mining facility. Shipbuilders’ mass-produced “settler” craft and made them easy to dismantle. Every dome and facility in the village came from dismantling the hull and the supplies the ship carried. They were cheap and reliable, but not safe for long-term travel.

 

  Builders used readily available aluminum alloys to build simple frames and single layer hulls, excluding nanotube-composites, ionomers, and other products necessary to protect against long-term radiation exposure. They were one trip or emergency ships.

 

  Despite their shortcomings, though, the ships carried a few hundred people and the necessities to start a colony. And their fusion drives could power a compact city.

 

  One-way voyages scared Jerok. If the colony failed, they had no way off the well once they broke down the hull. Merchants didn’t visit settlements often enough to be lifelines, and even though there were enough ships to answer distress calls within a day or two, there were no guarantees. Only larger ships could handle a colony of 100 or more, and they didn’t float through the dark waiting to save people.

 

  “The Chief’s office is through here,” Davus said, stopping next to the largest of the colony’s domes. “There’s an airlock on the side.”

 

  IV-C’s thick nitrogen atmosphere gave the sky a blue tint, but it wasn’t breathable. Large scale terraforming began, though, so it would be soon.

 

  After following procedures, Jerok removed his helmet, and Davus led him past a clinic into a large auditorium with numerous skylights. There was a well-worn stage and rows of seats—something a mining company wouldn’t need. A door next to the platform led to an underground tunnel where they walked through.

 

  Even though the moon had a thick atmosphere and magnetosphere, radiation was still a risk, and oxygen leaks between domes were common. Outside terraformed planets, most colonists lived in bunkers underground.

 

  “Looks like you have a lot of space here,” Jerok said.

 

  Offshoots for housing units and classrooms filled the tunnel. Separatists believed in traditional social interactions, the type a network could never offer. He liked that about them.

 

  “We’re looking to expand.” Davus knocked on the door near the end of the tunnel, and a pleasant voiced welcomed them in.

 

  “Chief, this is the merchant who was hoping to trade for gas and ore.”

 

  A woman not much older than Jerok stood and gestured towards the chair opposite of hers. “Do you drink Mr. Jerok?”

 

  “Jerok’s just fine, and I do,” he replied. She removed two glasses from a wooden box and poured an amber drink so pungent his eyes watered from across the room.

 

  “We make this here from a carnivorous plant, recipes secret, though.” She winked, then gulped the glass down. Trying his best to match her, Jerok swallowed the spirit, and a fire erupted through his chest and left him coughing.

 

  “Real mellow,” he said after his fit ended. “So is it just Chief? or do you have a name?”

 

  “Miranda, and I’m not a Chief, I’m the president of a mining company, that’s all.” Davus left the room after a stern glare, leaving the two of them in the office alone.

 

  Jerok shrugged. “Chief, president, or empress, doesn’t matter to me as long as we can come to an arrangement.”

 

  She twirled the glass for an awkward amount of time before she began, “Tell me, Jerok, who doesn’t care who we are, what do you know about the gas and ore boom?”

 

  The demand spiked ten cycles ago and only increased since then. Lanthanide mines existed throughout the system, but no matter how much ore came to the market, the corporations couldn’t buy it quick enough. Anyone with mining experience could receive a corporate loan as long as they mined for the right minerals.

 

  “Not a lot. Market’s high and keeps getting higher. Probably some technology they’re developing.” He didn’t care what they used it for, as long as it kept them hopping rock to rock.

 

  She frowned at his response and drank the rest of her glass. “Maybe I should re-word my question. Why are the corporations willing to bankrupt themselves, even if they don’t deal with natural resources?”

 

  He had no idea and didn’t care, but before he could answer, she leaned towards him and whispered, “Why would The Union force purchases? Tell me, Jerok, what do you think The Union’s doing with all those supplies?”

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