|Ordinary Velorians -
Erg'nomics Shop#3, Sera'phim, Velor
Vera Sho'tovic's vidphone beeped as she sat at her workbench, patiently reassembling the liquid sodium control valve that she'd just overhauled. She ignored it, hoping it would quit ringing. Instead, the ring took on the tone that said ‘urgent’. Sighing, she paused to look down at her grease covered hands, and resorted to jabbing her elbow against the glowing Answer button on the screen. "I’m busy, god damn it!"
"We've got a situation, Ms. Sho'tovic.” a calm, male voice replied.
Her heart sank as she recognized the Director's voice. She'd been dragged into HR only last week and nearly fired. It was no secret that the Director was out to get her.
“We have a runaway Breeder," he continued when she didn't reply. "A really early model. Clark'son says you once volunteered for an off-planet assignment. You still interested?"
Vera’s heart leaped, but she tried to keep the sudden excitement out of her voice. She'd dreamed of getting off-planet for years. "Who the hell do I have to kill?"
"With any luck, you'll be saving lives, Ms. Sho’tovic,” the Director continued, his voice so sweet it made her stomach turn. “I need someone on Corrididor right away. Their Model 7 is out of control due to a cooling system malfunction. Nine-thousand rads in the containment dome after it breached, and that's rising fast. Reactor vessel itself may have fractured, and the containment won't hold forever."
Vera rubbed a clean spot of her forearm across her nose to suppress a sneeze. Pump grease always made her itch. "O.K. I’ll bite. What the fuck is a Corrididor?"
"Mining colony – it’s an inside-out asteroid near Klaxton 2."
"Hard rock miners, huh?”
“That's what the SitRep says.”
“Fucking A, I'll go. Be nice to deal with some no bullshit types for a change," she said, the last only half under her breath. She’d made a reputation of sorts for herself by confronting management during a recent series of cost-cutting moves. She’d spoken up in an employee meeting, and the discussion had ended with her shouting about 'techno-political bullshit' and ‘fat cat management’. Also something about ‘ossification’. She’d heard that word and thought it sounded cool. Erg’nomics management might as well be petrified it was so slow moving.
The mess had started when the Director tried to reduce their benefits and outsource some of their jobs. Vera took them on, and her union, the forbund, had backed her all the way. She surprised herself by winning that first round, but knew better than to think management was going to give up on the outsourcing. She’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop for the last few weeks.
"So what's in it for me?" she asked in a stronger voice. Her sentences were clipped, her words sharp. She smelled a rat. If not for her good work record and the forbund, she'd already be out on the street. The forbund steward had told her to lay low for a while.
"This is your dream shot, Ms. Sho'tovic. I’m offering you a short-term off-planet assignment. Extremely dangerous, but pay's good. Overtime all the way there and back."
“As I said, they’ve got a heavy radiation leak. Asteroid’s at the fringe of Enlightenment space, so I can’t guarantee your safety. But out there, the rads shouldn't hurt you much.”
“No gold anywhere near Corrididor.”
Vera’s heart leaped. She was being offered a job outside a gold field? Impossible! Nobody but Protectors and Messengers and a handful of diplomatic and military types ever got that privilege. The words spilled from her mouth before she could even think. "I'm in, I'm in!"
A hint of sarcasm teased the edge of his voice as he said, “We appreciate your volunteering, Ms. Sho’tovic.”
Vera’s thoughts were swirling so fast she never heard him. Everybody knew what happened to a Velorian outside a gold field. Fantastic strength. Invulnerability. The power of flight! Less than one in ten thousand Velorians were allowed to live outside a gold field, and it was unheard of for someone of her genetic class. That gave her pause. First rule of preservation: if something seems too good to be true, it is. She was the last person the Director should have been giving this assignment to.
“So why me?” she asked as she dropped the half assembled valve on the bench and began to wipe the grease from her hands. “You probably got nuke techs and engineers who’d love to go.”
“None of them can work on an early model breeder. Just you and your boss. And he’s too old to go off-planet.”
“Well, yeah, since all those are in museums.” Vera was a maintenance tech at the Velorian Energy Museum. “Model 7 you said? That can’t be. They were all ordered decommissioned.”
"There’s obviously one still working, Ms. Sho'tovic, or we wouldn’t be talking,” the Director said smugly. “Grab some clothes and report to Landing Pad 83. A Diplomatic courier ship will be waiting. But make it snappy. Those miners out there are living on borrowed time."
"A courier ship?" Vera gasped, even more astounded now. Only top government officials got to fly in those ships. They could cover vast distances faster than even a Protector could. "Who did you say I gotta kill again?"
"You’re going out there to save lives, Ms. Sho'tovic. The situation is critical. You're going to do very heavy G's all the way there, and even then, you'll barely arrive in time."
"And if I'm not? In time I mean."
"Then you get a quick round trip out and back to a burned-out cinder. Won't be anything left to salvage."
Vera cringed, deciding not to ask what would happen if she got there and then the reactor blew. She suddenly realized why the Director had chosen her. She was willing to bet that the timing was even tighter than the Director said, and she was definitely expendable. He gets paid a fortune to fly someone out, and he solves his personnel problem to boot. The miners were going to fry anyway.
She pushed those fears away and took off at a run, keying the 'Taxi call' button on her PersComp. She was willing to risk it. There were other places she could go once she got away from this accursed planet.
Like most lower-class Vels, Vera had dreamed of getting off-planet ever since she’d been a girl, but she hadn't had the faintest prospect of doing that until now. She was just a simple maintenance tech, B-class at that. Lowest of the low. She worked as a reactor valve and pump technician for Erg'nomics, the leading energy producer on Velor. They donated some time and money to running the Energy Museum, where she worked, repairing stuff that should have been scrapped decades ago. She figured that Erg’nomics ran the museum just to get the tax deduction out of it.
She'd had the same job ever since she'd finished Tech school twelve years ago. Prior to that, she'd dropped out of her A-level studies at the age of fifteen, and hooked up with an older boyfriend who rode with a bunch of freedlings. Outlaws who rode modified flitter-bikes much like the Hells Angels had ridden Harley’s back on Earth. She’d enjoyed the life of a ‘biker-chick’ at first, riding on the back of a chopped flitter to exotic locations on Velor, hanging out with her so-called brothers and sisters, most of whom had twenty or thirty years on her. It didn't even bother her when she more or less became community property of the gang. She rotated from one bed to the next, and was often loaned for a few weeks at a time to rival gangs as an offer of peace. She enjoyed the sexual variety the way any Velorian girl would, just as long as she could ride with her boyfriend most of the time.
It wasn't very long, however, before she was introduced to the darker side. The freedlings made their living running drugs, most of them illegal gold inhibitors that bodybuilders bought. The addicts they sold them to were all pumped up and crazy-eyed, their sexual hormones redirected into building muscle. They were insanely strong because of the partial gold-block and their constant lifting. Even worse, periodic bouts of sexual rage were part of the addiction.
Nobody in the gang used the junk themselves, but Vera's boyfriend managed to get on the wrong side of one of the addicts and was killed in a horribly violent fight. The customer had wanted a night with Vera as part of the deal, and her boyfriend refused, knowing he'd probably kill her. The addict angrily killed him the way a deranged child might kill an insect, picking the wings off a butterfly. Her boyfriend’s dismembered body was still twitching on the floor, bleeding out from his torn stumps, when the addict started to have his way with Vera. Her rape had been violent and unmerciful, continuing for hours after her boyfriend died.
The only thing that saved her life was her experience in being loaned to other gangs, some of their members users. She'd learned a few things about handling big men, so when the bastard’s drug high finally wound down, weakening him, she’d killed him by exploiting the sexual stimulants that were still in his veins. She pushed his sexual frenzy to such a peak that his heart exploded.
That horrific day had also happened to be her sixteenth birthday, the day Protectors enjoy their glorious Rites.
Vera’s coming of age was far uglier.
The police report depicted her as a victim who 'got lucky' when the perpetrator suffered a massive heart attack. She knew luck hadn't had a damn thing to do with it. Determination had. So had skill. Even at that tender age, she was a survivor.
Instead of going back to her parents and their offers of ‘spiritual healing', for they were worshippers of Skietra, she used the last of her boyfriend’s ill-begotten money to buy a fake A-level diploma and enter a training program for technicians. She wasn't book smart, but she'd always been savvy about machines and her boyfriend had taught her how to fix a flitter-bike -- after a time she could fix it even better than he could.
She quickly infuriated her teachers at the school, most of them engineers, by finding ways to fix things in ways that weren’t in the book. She loved working on ancient machinery that everyone else wanted to toss in the trash, and she graduated with the highest score in her class in Lab, and the lowest possible passing score in Theory.
After Tech school, she started working odd jobs around the fringes of the nuclear power industry until Erg'nomics finally hired her to work at the Museum. Her job was to restore obsolete power systems to working order. The museum's claim to fame was that every exhibit was part of a working system, and she took great pride in contributing her own little bit of power into the planetary grid.
Life was pretty good after that. Good but boring. She missed riding with the gang. She missed the bawdy sex by the side of the campfire at night, sharing her warmth and her youth with the grizzled old riders. But she was making a decent living doing what she wanted, and she liked her boss. He was an aging engineer who'd actually worked on breeder reactors when they were part of the power grid.
After his wife died, Vera moved in with him. The sex wasn't very good, so she started sitting up most of the night studying his engineering manuals as he snored away in the bedroom. She came to love those dangerous, old breeder reactors.
But as the years passed, Vera knew she wanted more from life than comfort and security. She spent many nights lying on the grass and staring up at the stars, dreaming of getting away from the strangling effects of Big Government and the corporations that sucked the life out of people like herself. Away from older men who could barely ignite the flames of passion she so enjoyed. She wanted to escape Velor and find a frontier where her well-honed survival skills and cleverness would be useful.
It was a common enough dream for the disenfranchised in any culture, but it was particularly acute among the B-class Velorians. Living on the lowest rung of Velorian society, everything controlled and calibrated and ordered, not to mention limited, she dreamed of the superwoman she'd become if only she could escape the gold field of Velor. She fell asleep dreaming about the humans putting her on a pedestal, and worshipping her as a goddess.
Of course, she couldn't share that dream with anyone else, or they'd never let her go off-planet. The Velorian government was paranoid about renegades, especially Velorians who pretended they were angels or gods. Too many Velorians had refused to return to Velor after leaving it.
The Council tolerated their vaunted Protectors, even when they broke the rules, for their job was dangerous enough and they were bred with an instinctive desire to help the less powerful. But ordinary Velorians like herself were as diverse morally and emotionally as humans. That meant that some of them would become megalomaniacs if released among humans. There were enough messy case histories in the archives to prove their point.
Vera's boss was the only person she'd ever hinted to about going off-planet, and he sometimes stayed up late at night talking about the old reactors which were rumored to still be in production along the fringes of the Enlightenment. No engineer trained in the last hundred years knew anything about maintaining them. Everything was either antimatter or fusion powered now.
More years passed, years during which Protectors continued to go off planet to save worlds, and those beautiful Messengers followed. Girls like her with dirty blonde hair and grease under her fingernails and low-class genes and fake credentials were lucky to have a job as the Velorian economy worsened from the effects of the long war, let alone win an off-planet assignment.
Vera sat back in the taxi’s seat and fantasized for the thousandth time what it might be like to launch out of the planetary gold field of Velor. It had to be the ultimate physical rush. Yet nobody who’d gone off-planet was willing to talk openly about it. The government had classified everything a Protector or Messenger did as a State Secret. The only stories that she’d found were buried in obituary notices, and the occasional commendation for extraordinary bravery. Those accounts were amazing enough, talking of the young women of Velor fighting Arion starships with little more than their bare hands and blazing eyes.
Everyone knew that Arion starships were equipped with HGARs and fusion torpedoes. It was inconceivable that pretty bare skin and feminine muscles could defeat such a machine! Of course, there were always the soap operas on the holo, many of them depicting life on human worlds, but nobody believed for a second that those syrupy, romantic sagas had anything to do with reality. The government would never allow that.
She keyed in a search on the name Corrididor, but the databank in her PersComp didn’t return any information. She reluctantly spent the last few coppers in her bank account to connect to the Central Database and search its archives. She quickly learned that Corrididor was an asteroid, 45 kilometers by 30, in an elongated orbit around a class J sun, period fifteen-hundred years. During the last twenty years of the orbit, just before it raced through the inner planets to kiss the sun, the asteroid was cool enough for humans to live inside and mine. The Mining Guild had staked a claim, and miners had gone to work hollowing out living quarters in the core. They were in a race to extract all the ore before their home became uninhabitable for the next fifteen centuries.
It was this elliptical orbit and the resulting heating/cooling cycle which made Corrididor such a treasure-trove of metals. A million cycles around the sun had done most of the hard work of separating metal from rock, and the miners just had to dig out the nearly pure ore. Nearly every metal in the periodic table was there in large quantities. Everything except gold, which was useless to Velorians in any case.
The data bank pictures revealed an oblong rock covered with thousands of impact craters. In sharp contrast, the photos taken inside the asteroid showed a village located in a central cavern. Extensive use of holographics created an illusion of living in an expansive green jungle, with waterfalls and volcanic mountains visible in the distance. In reality the cavern was a mere kilometer long by half that wide, and wrapped in an artificial gravity field. Five hundred miners and their families lived there, with another hundred storekeepers and their families supporting them. Total population under two thousand. Other than a Velorian consulate officer who visited every six months to handle visas, passports, marriage certificates and other legal forms, the Enlightenment had left Corrididor and its human population completely on its own.
Vera suspected that was exactly how the miners liked it. They were a notoriously independent bunch.
She punched the Hold button on the dash of her automated taxi as it reached Haight Street, and ran into her basement apartment to grab a change of clothing. She paused in the bathroom to gather up the usual toiletries, only to laugh when she remembered that she’d be out of a gold field. She wouldn’t need as much as a toothbrush. She was going to become a goddess.
The taxi deposited her at the SpacePort an hour later. Slinging her bag over her shoulder, she stepped onto a moving walkway that wound its way between the widely-spaced launch pads. She passed a dozen cargo ships with their bulbous holds, steam rising from liquefied gases and decontamination systems, before she found the sleek courier ship being prepped on Pad 83. It was made of silver metal, polished to mirror brightness, its frame long and slender, the engines in the rear looking oversized and muscular given the size of the ship. Her PersComp had said courier ships were capable of 30G's continuous acceleration/deceleration for weeks at a time, and they had limited gravitational dampers. All the ship's power went to the engines; so only an empowered Supremis could survive the heavy acceleration, not to mention the brief pull of hundreds of G's during a hole transit.
Vera settled eagerly into the hard metal seat, surprised to find that she was the only passenger on-board. The Captain, an aging M-class, came back to hook her up to a forced breathing system that would deliver sleepy gas before the ship left Velor. When she objected, saying she wanted to watch the stars and colors during the hole transit, he impatiently explained how an inexperienced and hyper-strong passenger wandering around his starship wasn't healthy for anyone - a simple moment of exuberance or a forgotten moment, not to mention an attempt to levitate, and his pretty ship could get broken. He said it would be up to the locals on the far end of the transit to deal with her empowerment.
Vera sighed and took a deep breath, inhaling the minty-smelling gas, knowing as she did that this was the only way she was going to get off-planet. Her eyes grew heavy and her world turned black.
She had only her bright dreams to sustain her now.