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Jerok pushed down the ramp and floated into the control bridge after docking the shuttle. In his left arm, he carried a package with a smile on his face. Meanwhile, Ayana watched a video feed with messages from her parents.

 

  “You look happy,” she said, turning to him. “Something good happen?”

 

  He raised the small box high to his chest and pressed off the wall in her direction. “A gift. The Chief left me with a few bottles of liquor, potent stuff.”

 

  Although things hadn’t worked as he planned, he negotiated a satisfactory price, and there were no problems with the clamp when docking. Those two alone were enough to drown out his worry of The Union devouring resources. The Union working on secret projects surprised nobody, but they rarely affected him. He couldn’t say the same for the colony below, though.

 

  “Chief… So they’re Seps?” Ayan frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. In the last three weeks everyone they dealt with was a separatist.

 

  “Yeah, seems like everybody is now,” Jerok replied.

 

  Most separatists lived in the remnants of the accretion disk, a place The Union held little authority, but it was 500 Au to the disk, a distance most people couldn’t travel. That didn’t mean there were any fewer separatists, though. Instead of living under the thumb of The Union, they used any market resource surges as an excuse to build.

 

  “Hmm… well whatever, how much did you get. Or did you mess up again?”

 

  Jerok’s face flushed red at her jab. He wasn’t the greatest of negotiators, but he fared better than her and didn’t think the last deal was his fault. His prices were reasonable; the colonists weren’t.

 

  “Not bad. We got a full crate, 13% Holmium.”

 

  Ayana’s eyes bulged, and she whistled at the amount. A 13 percent mix was well above average. “That’s a lot, and a good ratio. How’d they end up with those numbers?”

 

  Jerok spun the box in the air and left it to twirl, shrugging overdramatically. “I’m not sure. They didn’t let me in on their secret. You know separatists, though. Must have used the rest for something.”

 

  “So, what’s our cut?” Ayana asked, dropping her voice several octaves.

 

  He winced at the question. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Merchant Union’s monopolized most trade, with fleets of ships capable of demanding a higher percentage of any deals.

 

  Jerok stammered for a moment before blurting it out, “Twenty-eight percent.”

 

  Ayana’s head dropped, but she said nothing. For companies, 45% was the standard fee. They weren’t contractors for a company or in a collective, though.

 

  “Whatever, it’s still a good amount, I guess. Enough to get the things I want.”

 

  “Hey wait,” Jerok floated from his chair and knocked his head into the box. “We didn’t agree to anything yet.”

 

  “Ship needs repairs, Jer,” she replied and let out a long sigh. “If we don’t re-line the reactor chamber, we’re gonna die of radiation. Red fixed the clamp. But it’s temporary. The auto-doc doesn’t work; the galley is waiting to explode, we’re pushing the scrubbers to their—”

 

  “I got it. I got it. We’ll focus on the repairs.” The repairs never ended. The ship was beyond maintenance. It was a black hole for credits. “But I need about 1,000.”

 

  “You’re not gambling again, are you?”

 

  “Of course not,” Jerok lied.

 

  “What’s it for then?”

 

  He didn’t want to talk about it, especially to Ayana. “I have needs. Things I want. Stuff like that.”

 

  She scrunched her nose to the side and turned back towards her messages. “Just buy a Bot already. Ya know, it’s probably cheaper in the long run. Safer for everyone.”

 

  “I’m not buying one of those things,” he said. “The new ones are expensive, and I wouldn’t touch a used one. They’re creepy anyways. And that’s not what I’m using the credits for.”

 

  “Uh-huh. You better fix the auto-doc.”

 

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

  “We don’t need you spreading some disease. I like my life, ya know?”

 

  He ignored her accusation disguised as a question.

 

  “They also had an aerostat and are sending 20 tanks in a second crate.” Jerok changed the subject before he received a lecture.

 

  Erebus IV was the only gas giant in the binary pair, so its atmosphere was a constant source of Helium mining. The larger merchant fleets held a monopoly, but they let independents take the crumbs. The real money came from the shipments to Tiliri.

 

  “How are you getting those up here?” Ayana asked.

 

  “A Railgun.”

 

  “For a new colony that’s impressive. You sure they don’t have a backer?”

 

  “Not that I know of,” Jerok replied. With IV-C being a low gravity well, it didn’t strike him as odd. Not all separatists were poor, and a Railgun was the cheapest way to deliver large shipments. “A conspiracy is spreading too.”

 

  Ayana put her hand-terminal down and focused in on the conversation. He forgot how much she liked conspiracies. “What do you mean?”

 

  “Seps claim The Union’s driving the purchases. She thinks they’re building a weapon. At least that’s the rumors.”

 

  Ayana spun in her chair and rubbed her chin. “If The Union’s forcing purchases, it’s gonna cause problems for us.”

 

  “Why do you think that?” Jerok asked.

 

  “The corporations don’t have unlimited credits, Jer. The Union might issue a price control soon or conscript merchants for deliveries.”

 

  Price controls were a headache that led to merchants shipping other goods, so conscriptions were possible. But they were just a small boat in an endless sea. He didn’t think they’d have a problem. “Floats too big to conscript little boats like us, Aya.”

 

  “Float only feels big cause they let it feel that big. You should buy info at the station.”

 

  Although he hated to admit it, she had a point. Outside of buying fuel from separatists, they’d run into The Union, eventually. He’d ask around, but information cost money, and it wasn’t always useful.

 

  “Where’s Red?” Jerok switched the topic. “Is he tinkering with that Service-Bot?”

 

  “Last I checked,” Ayana replied.

 

  “The crates should be here soon. I’ll help him with the grappling arm.”

 

  Ayana waved him off like a small child without saying a word. He grabbed the box of liquor and pressed down the ladder to the mechanic’s shop. He had a goal of drinking the strong alcohol after they finished.

 

  Ayana had a carefree attitude most of the time and loved chatting about trivial things, but she didn’t drink on the ship. It was too dangerous, in her opinion. They’d leave shortly after they secured the crates, but he wanted to watch Red choke a bit.

 

  “Hey Boss, how’d it go?” Red asked, turning his attention away from the Bot.

 

  Red was tireless. Whenever something broke Jerok wanted to cry, but Red’s body glowed with excitement. The massive man loved working with his hands and became an expert on anything he touched after one fix. Jerok figured it wouldn’t be long before Red built a better ship from scratch.

 

  “Not bad, not bad. And stop calling me, Boss.”

 

  “Sure thing, Boss. What ya got there in your arms.”

 

  “I got a treat,” Jerok replied with a victorious smile. He pushed a bottle toward Red and told him it was a thank you for the clamp fix.

 

  “You sure about this? Doesn’t matter what’s in here, you’re not gonna win.”

 

  “Sure, sure. All right, let’s load up these crates.”

 

  Red nodded, and the two suited up after Jerok relayed the same info he told Ayana. They walked towards the grappling controls and searched until they found the first crate. If they were lucky, neither of them would need to step out. Jerok didn’t believe in luck, though.

 

  Using the thrusters, he guided them to the crate, and Red dragged it towards them. They had slammed a box into the ship once before when the arm jerked. The damage was minor, but it still meant 15,000 credits lost.

 

  Red engaged the second grappling arm that usually hugged the hull and wrapped it around their shipment and pulled it tight. They’d been lucky the last few jobs, so they both held their breath and waited. The arms were new, but things had a brief life with them.

 

  Red cinched the crate tight, then turned towards Jerok. “I think it’ll hold, Boss.”

 

  Although he enjoyed the views, taking a walk and fixing a locking mechanism was nobody’s idea of fun, especially when it meant dealing with large crates. The Bot wasn’t operational yet, and one mistake could cost a person one of their limbs or even their lives.

 

  An hour later, the next 30-meter long crate arrived, and they repeated the process until it was secure on the other side.

 

  “Let’s get out of here,” Jerok said. They secured everything throughout the ship, then went to the control bridge.

 

  Ayana sat in her chair, now suited with a hand-terminal, and strapped herself in. It was a slow burn of 0.3g to Erebus station, but the possibility of a miscalibration existed, and that 0.3g could turn into 3g quickly. The older the ship, the more likely a system error became. Jerok had that happen once before ship only two-cycles old. They burned for 45 minutes at just under 4g’s before they got the problem under control. Their boat was 55-cycles.

 

  “Aya, everything green?” Jerok strapped himself in his chair on the half deck above, which rested on a large water tank. Even though his panel showed all green, errors occurred, and they always confirmed verbally.

 

  “Good on my end, Jer.”

 

  “All set here, Boss.”

 

  “All right, heading out now.”

 

  Jerok entered the coordinates into his guidance system and adjusted the ship using the pressurized hydrogen thrusters. The reactor core roared to life, and the ship groaned forward at a crawl.

 

  A constant acceleration of 0.3g would take them four days to reach Erebus station, where they’d unload their goods and make the upgrades Ayana selected. They’d also find their next job, but Jerok had plans for Red before any of that. The rotgut alcohol didn’t expire, but he had no plans to let it linger in the galley.

 

***

 

  Life on Erebus station was like any other rotating station; wealthy, high-class citizens lived in the outer rings and the lower caste in the inner loops. The center ring had the largest diameter and revolved around the central core quick enough to provide 1g of gravity.

 

  The engineers designed commercial docking rings to remain at 0.25g.

 

  Life in the inner loops was unpleasant. The air quality was lower, and the water restrictions tightened the further in you went. But that never bothered him. Perhaps his ship was too small, or the lack of variety the ship had for food and drink left him longing. Whatever it was, he enjoyed brief stops like these.

 

  The market prices stayed high, and they sold off the Lanthanides for 204,000 credits and the Helium for 173,000, which left them with 105,000 after paying the separatists. Although it sounded like a large haul, it wouldn’t cover everything Ayana wanted to upgrade.

 

  Repairs and maintenance would eat away at half their earnings. Fuel would take another 20,000 credits, and Ayana would spend the rest no doubt upgrading the communications and reactor. He wanted to cry when he saw her list, but held it in when he thought about how the improvements would relieve his stress.

 

  Her upgrades would take time, though, and he wanted algae. Few people bothered with plant-based recyclers, but anything that removed waste, produced oxygen, and became food was too valuable to not use in his opinion.

 

  It would take at least two weeks for everything, so he needed more than his meager allowance, and he had a place in mind.

 

  Gambling booths weren’t expensive unless you won. Ten credits an hour and 15% of any earnings made, which could be significant; they were the only way into major competitions, though. After adjusting the headset, Jerok searched through the catalog of matches until he found one he liked, a race through an ancient canyon carved by a dried-up river on Ares II.

 

  The competition cost 200 credits, and only the top three won prizes. His hands tingled at the thought of winning. The race began five minutes after 30 contestants registered, and he was number 28.

 

  He hadn’t been to Ares, which was 5,000 Au from the barycenter, but it had five tidally locked planets that were habitable and two gas giants with over 50 moons.

 

  Most people lived in the planets’ twilight sections, with the only exception being the moons, like the artificial rainforest on Ares VI-D. The second and third-generation settlers created a clever array of mirrors to build a paradise that mimicked Homeworld.

 

  Like countless others, he wanted to visit Ares and experience their culture, but the trip was too long to the Orange-Red dwarf.

 

  After customizing his pod using 50 credits to boost its maneuverability and arm it with two 20mm guns, he waited until the countdown reached zero, then launched.

 

  Jerok slammed the handle forward and flew off the rock ledge before dropping deeper into the red crevasse. He hovered as close to the canyon floor as he could and hugged the walls, remaining in the shadows while ships passed in front of him.

 

  He had a habit of being shot from behind in races, so he used similar tactics. When he felt safe, he popped out from a small cave and chased down a red racing pod. They twisted between rusty spires and ducked below rocky bridges until Jerok hit the pod with a burst of bullets until it exploded.

 

  He punched the accelerator in excitement and tracked three other pods. Everything was perfect until he became the prey. When the race started, he was sure he allowed everyone to pass him, but now he was being chased, and they were good. He tried a few reckless moves, but nothing worked.

 

  His window for escape was narrowing, and the four pods chasing after him had no intention of stopping, no matter how dangerous the maze of caverns became. He banked hard left into a narrow tunnel and exited high above the jagged floor.

 

  Moments later, a burst of white light flew past his window and destroyed a half-arch less than 100 meters ahead, sending enormous chunks of red rock crashing towards the surface.

 

  The canyon tightened and forced him to twist the handle right, driving it into the steering column. The sudden action sent him spiraling towards a deep ravine. Trapped between the cliff walls and the four pods above him, he attempted to shake them, but it was too late. Ahead of him was a tight bend, and before he could bank, a blast of light erupted, and the all too familiar screen appeared before him.

 

  With 260 credits less than when he started, he left the booths for the time being and hopped on a rail towards the residential section.

 

  Traveling from one ring to another always took some amount of adjusting, and the 0.6g of the gambling centers to the residential rings with 0.25-0.3g was a significant jump. If you weren’t careful, you’d fall immediately after stepping off the rail.

 

  Jerok enjoyed the residential rings, though. They reminded him of the slow burns on his ship. He grew up on Erebus III, with its 0.95g, so it took time to adjust to the lower-g environments, but now walking on a heavy well exhausted his body. Thankfully, he did most of his work on the smaller moons and only had to deal with the more substantial strain when transporting people.

 

  The residential rings were a mix of graffiti on clean walls, loud voices of children chasing each other, and the scent of day-old food that clung to everything. He liked it. It felt real and reminded him of his childhood. It was how life should be, minus the tight water restrictions and poor air scrubbers.

 

  Jerok had friends on the station, friends that offered risky jobs with good pay. Fuel wasn’t cheap, and neither were repairs. He didn’t want to leave dock this time without dealing with most of his issues.

 

  Declan, or Deck as everyone knew him, always had work and not enough workers. Most of the time, he dealt with passenger or material transport, but sometimes his jobs toed the line over black waters. With time on his hands and in need of money, Jerok visited him.

 

  He passed through a side corridor filled with anti-Union messages, and the names of people disappeared by the local authorities until he reached the only clean door in the tunnel. After knocking the agreed pattern, the door opened, and Jerok walked in.

 

  Hired muscle patted him down and brought him into the room Declan called his office, where he waited for 20 minutes.

 

  Old-style decorations covered the wall, ranging from system figurines, uncommon minerals, and rotating posters that were popular 100 cycles ago. Declan was a collector, something only wealthy people did.

 

  “Jerok, my friend, I didn’t expect you to come back so soon.” Declan sat in a chair much too large for his thin frame and leaned back so far he looked like he’d slide right off.

 

  Declan always dressed in clothes too expensive for the area and wore his black hair slicked back like he glued it somehow. He looked like someone who’d watched too many interviews on where to invest his credits.

 

  “You look tired, Deck. Wife, finally clean you out?”

 

  “Bah, that woman,” Declan turned his head to the panel of his family and threw his hand out as a sign of defeat. “I tell you, the outers have it right. Everything’s a contract with them with no surprises.”

 

  Outer ring citizens were the wealthiest members of the system with deep ties to the Union. They had conglomerates that spanned the binary pair of Tiliri and Erebus and drew in more wealth than they could ever spend.

 

  Most owned homes in the 1g rings and pleasure yachts 40 or 50 times larger than his old patrol boat. He wanted to be jealous, but their lives were so opulent the idea felt foreign. He didn’t know how. Not to mention their family structures that nobody understood.

 

  “Best not to compare ourselves to them.” Jerok’s words shook Declan out of his daze, and he continued, “I’m looking to make some money and pass some time, Deck. You got anything lying around?”

 

  Declan eyed Jerok before tapping on his desk and smiling. “I might have something, but I’m not sure. Could be dangerous.”

 

  Dangerous was code for less than legal in Declan’s office, and Jerok had been on a few before. It always came down to the details.

 

  “So what’s the job, Deck? I’m not floating in the black at the end, am I?” He doubted Declan would send him on something where he’d die, but some levels of risk were beyond the reward.

 

  “You worry too much, friend. I need a pilot, 30k with 10 upfront. I’ll provide the ship.” Declan gestured for Jerok and leaned in. “As for the details… I think the less you know, the better.”

 

  It was a lot of money, and vague. He wanted to turn the job down, but if it was a pilot he needed and he was providing the ship, Deck wasn’t sending him off to die. If nothing else, Deck was frugal.

 

  “When’s the Job?”

 

  “If you’re ready, then we can set up for tomorrow,” Declan replied.

 

  “Let me think about it.” Jerok had to contact Ayana and Red before taking the job. They’d probably object, but they’d relent, eventually. Either way, it was good to let them know if he was leaving the station.

 

  “I heard some rumors, too, thought maybe you had some information.”

 

  “Jerok, we’ve known each other a while now. Information costs money. Everything does. What’s your rumor? if it’s worth enough, maybe we can trade.”

 

  He thought it over, then agreed to the terms. “I hear The Union’s forcing purchases. What do you know about that?”

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