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Saturday, October 29, 2022

 Some older stuff, from RayGun Revival in 2011.



Stars by Law Forbidden

By Michael Ehart




Welding my cabin door shut had only held them up for a few minutes. Right now, they were burning a hole in the composite fiber bulkhead. I had managed to avoid their notice for over ten months, but I had slipped up, gotten a little too cute, and now they knew I was there. And they were angry.

It was hard to blame them. I had done my best to keep them distracted and quarreling with each other. But there was a limit to that, and I had stepped over. Now the three of them were shouting curses at me over the intercom. Some of their threats seemed a little outlandish, but at this point I was inclined to trust their sincerity.

By now I knew them pretty well. Hendricks, the leader, had a brutal temper. Right now he was venting it on the bulkhead, chanting a steady stream of fantasies of what he was going to do to me when he got his hands on me as he wielded the massive cutter that they had used to burn their way in to the Arabella. Ngyuen was a much smaller man, but far more frightening. Both Hendricks and Laver were careful not to cross him. I had used that to my advantage in keeping the tension high during the long passage out.

But now the tension and anger were directed at me. And in a very short time they would be through the bulkhead. The closest thing I had to a weapon was the small flash welder I had used to seal myself in. Not much for a 115 pound woman to defend herself with against three angry men.

Not much at all.


Eleven months earlier:

Against the velvet backdrop of the deep black, the splash of stars glowed unblinking. I reached through the projection to tap on the firmscreen behind. For a moment my wrist was neatly braceleted by the globular cluster of M22. “View rear north cable five,” I muttered. The projection shifted from its default view ahead to the last open cargo slot on the Arabella. The cable clamp stood out at a perfect right angle to the fuselage tube, the jaws at its end open and ready.

A tug was bringing the last cargo sphere out from the Quito Ladder. The tug was shaped like a squared-off donut, or a very thick washer. It had been designed specifically for moving cargo spheres, and so the hole in the middle was only slightly bigger than the silvery sphere it contained. Together they kind of looked like a fat, chunky Saturn.

Two jets flared white for a moment, hard to see against the white composite of the tug. And then one more quick correction as the tug, the sphere and the clamp all negotiated the capture.  Somewhere in radio space the AI in each were furiously chattering at each other, making tiny corrections in the path and speed of the tug, the length of the cable and the angle of the clamp.

The sphere snapped into place. Simultaneously, the AI in the sphere and the AI in the clamp verified the attachment, the sphere by an audio clip of applause and the clamp by an icon of a hand clasp displayed on the firmscreen.

I was looking at twenty-two months of blessed solitude. Full up now. Next stop Agora Station in the belt. Two years of watching what I want, when I want, eating what I want, and plenty of bunk time broken only by the minimal needs of the Arabella.

Two years of smelling my own farts, endless night, and unlimited moping about Jesse.

Jesse, who last turnaround had made me promise that it would be the last. Who told me this time that he couldn’t wait. He needed me, not a shaky transmission with a thirty minute lag, but me in the flesh. I tried to tell him that I needed him too, but the words hadn’t come out right.

“One last time out and back,” I pleaded to the empty recycled air of the control cabin. “Arabella missed her berth for the refit, and needs a captain one last time.” But the cabin didn’t answer, and Jesse wasn’t there.

In truth Arabella probably didn’t need me even now. The AI aboard was more than capable of handling nearly anything I could handle. But the insurance companies wouldn’t underwrite a crewless vessel unless it was controlled by the new bubble-logic AI, which integrated all shipboard functions, including navigation and power control, in a dynamic three-dimensional control matrix., self-maintaining, self-repairing and perfectly stable.

I watched as the AI did a final recalculation of mass. Course, fuel and burn duration corrections flashed across the projection, while the firmscreen behind it started a countdown sequence.

“Burn in thirty seconds, Susan,” Arabella reminded me in her warm, throaty voice. It was as close as I was able to get to my mother’s voice, taken from the recorded messages saved through the years.

I tapped a couple of control panels, shutting down the interface. The default screen came up, and I drifted back to the acceleration couch, pulled myself into its soft embrace, and lightly tagged the strap across my lap. Nothing exciting was going to happen here, just the first cargo adjustment burn, but there was nothing else for me to do, anyway.

The jets burped and I sunk briefly into my seat. On the default screen I could see the spheres on the end of their cables stir, and slowly seem to creep back to the stern of the tubular fuselage. At rest the loaded Arabella looked like a bathroom bowl brush. At speed, with the cables adjusted in and a full load of 128 cargo spheres she looked like a knobby Christmas tree.

The hull vibrated as the winches adjusted the length of each cable to balance the load. By making each tether longer or shorter, the ship could be trimmed to a perfect mass symmetry.

Ten minutes of adjustments and the task was done, ship trim and ready for her first sixteen hour burn to escape Earth orbit. Arabella waited my command. We had a pretty wide window this trip. There was time for one last call to Jesse. One last plea for him to wait, to tell him how much he meant to me.

I blinked away tears. “Go,” I commanded.

The gradual thrust pushed me back into my chair once more. Well trimmed, Arabella had very little vibration, and her burn was smooth. After half an hour I got up and dragged my way down the ladder aft to my bunk.


Perhaps I was needed this trip, after all. For some reason, one of the cargo spheres had bonded to the fuselage, and wouldn’t budge. Normally the spheres danced a glacial pavane against the hull as the trim was adjusted to compensate for fuel consumption and minuscule shifts in the cargo. After six days out, in the middle of our long slow transit burn, Arabella had finally asked for help.

Small errors accumulate, and when traveling over millions of miles can accumulate disastrously. What the AI in Arabella couldn’t do was a “good enough” correction. Humans, and presumably the new bubble AI, could let go of perfection enough for a compromise that worked. Arabella’s AI could not. In her attempt for perfection Arabella would burn all of her fuel on corrections well before we reached Agora Station on Eos.

So every few hours I would go to the pilot’s console, tap a few controls, override the six burns an hour that Arabella would schedule otherwise, and recalculate exactly what corrections were absolutely needed to make certain that we got to where we were going with enough fuel to get us home. It was the most piloting I had done in over a decade.

It was fitting in a way, for the last cargo vessel captain on the last crewed cargo vessel. All the others had been re-fitted. Arabella was the last, and only a scheduling error had kept her from getting her upgrade. And me from happily-ever-after with Jesse.

We had two blissful months together dirtside before the company called me back with the offer of an extension. Had I found employment? Would I accept double payment?  I accepted without thinking, without asking Jesse first.

Perhaps the bliss had not been entire. We were in Central London when the call came, at a small hotel near the British Museum. I used to love walking the streets of London, but this time I stayed in mostly. I hated the rain, the traffic made me dizzy, and I often found myself flinching away at the approach of strangers. And since nearly everyone but Jesse was a stranger to me, I did a lot of flinching.

It hurt to think of Jesse’s face when I told him. It was hard to make the image go away. Having something to do seemed to help. Between piloting sessions I rattled around Arabella’s crew and passenger quarters. She had six cabins. Originally she had boasted a crew of four. Twenty years earlier, she had needed that many to keep track of all her systems and sub-systems. And for a while, during the construction of Agora Station, there had been passengers to replace the diminished crew as more of her systems were automated. When I signed on as mate sixteen years ago, I was half the crew. Four years and two turnarounds later I was promoted to captain. And sole crewmember.

Sometimes there had been passengers. The last two times there were not. Most people preferred the three-month transit time of the high-burn shuttles. I grew cranky in my solitude, satisfied with my loneliness. The dream of Jesse had filled whatever gaps I had in my heart.

This trip I filled my time cleaning the ship’s cabins, ignored and empty for years. I found interesting detritus in them; misplaced socks, food wrappers, an unexpectedly adventurous porn disk in the player of the cabin last occupied by a grandmotherly engineer.  When each was cleaned and inspected, I took a last look around then sealed its cabin door with a flash welder. The doors were composite fiber, but the edges and frames were metal and so bonded nicely.

I was just finishing the weld on the fourth cabin when Arabella interrupted me with my mother’s calm tones. “We seem to have a breach in the central fuselage, 80 meters aft.”

No great emergency, as we kept only a minimal amount of gas pressure there, primarily as an indicator of exactly this sort of event. At first I thought we had been holed by a meteorite. Then the significance of the location sunk in.

The sticking sphere was eighty meters aft. Could it have rubbed its way through the fuselage? Eighty meters would be a long climb down and back. Arabella’s engines were mounted outside the tube of her fuselage, all the way aft. Their thrust provided gravity when they were burning, but most of the time they were idle. Going all the way back to the breach would mean putting on a v-suit, depressurizing the central cabin and shaft, weaving back under near-zero g through the orderly tangle of cable reels and servos, patching the hole, then weaving back to the cabin and pressurizing it again. Say an hour each way, an hour for the patch. A long time to be in a v-suit.

Better to see what was causing the trouble before planning any dances in the vacuum. “Show me,” I said. “Pilot’s screen.” I hooked the ladder and made my way up, flash welder forgotten in my hand.

The firmscreen forward flickered to life. It took me a moment to reconcile the shadowed shoulders of the cable reels and curve of the fuselage. The internal placement of the camera was fortuitous; it could just see past the nearest servo to the growing blackened spot on the inside of the hull.

This was not caused by friction, or impact. Something or someone was burning their way through. I could see the beginnings of a circular cut. It was nearly a third complete.For a moment I was annoyed. How could they schedule a maintenance while we were underway? But this made no sense. Then an archaic, romantic thrill fluttered up my breast, instantly replaced by fear as I realized what this might be. Just because it had never happened before didn’t mean that it wasn’t so.


They had shipped themselves in a cargo sphere. By waiting this long, they knew that any watcher or off-board monitor would have relinquished control to the AI. The new, bubble-logic AI, which would be running the ship on its maiden voyage as an un-crewed vessel. Except Arabella didn’t have the new bubble-logic AI. She had missed her berth for re-fit. Arabella had me.

I spent the next few minutes in frantic calculation. Arabella was far enough out that there was nothing likely to be able to affect an intervention or rescue. We were out of tug range. Departures of longer range ships were separated by weeks, sometimes months at a time. Calling for help might make me feel safer, but there wasn’t much available in the way of rescue. I was on my own.

“Jesse,” I wailed to myself. “Why didn’t you beg me to stay?” But it wasn’t Jesse’s fault. No one could have known that someone would use this ship and this passage for the first ever attempt at space piracy. Or was it hijacking? I wasn’t clear on the distinction.

It didn’t matter, anyway. I could see that they were almost through. The circle completed, and the burnt-edged disk of composite was pushed away from the inside. It slammed back quickly in the near vacuum and flew out of view. The helmet of a v-suit poked out and looked around. Apparently satisfied, the body attached followed, and was joined in the crowded space by two others. Any daydream I might have entertained about somehow overpowering a lone stow-away vanished. One maybe, if I were lucky and with the advantage of surprise. Three was just impossible. Should I call for help, when help could not possibly come until we reached Eos?

No. Calling for help would just put me in an escape-proof tube with three desperate felons expecting arrest at the end of our eleven-month shared confinement. The urge for retribution would just be to strong. Since the governor on Eos had the power of “high justice” but no budget or room for such things as prisons, the possible penalties for any serious crime was a simple choice between deportation and defenestration. The governor was paid a share of the bottom line. Deportation was expensive and cut into profits. Tossing a miscreant out of an airlock was free, and saved embalming costs.

I had to make myself scarce, and quick. If they found me here they might kill me. Or worse. It might take them an hour to make their way to the control cabin. Maybe a little more; they seemed fairly loaded down with gear, which would make traveling the fuselage shaft awkward. They wouldn’t have to cut their way in; the hatch was openly accessible. Of course it wouldn’t open if this side was pressurized, but that would be a small obstacle. They wouldn’t even have to burn it open, just make an easily-patched finger-sized hole and let the pressure equalize enough to release the safety locks. 

My first idea was to seal myself in my cabin, using the flash welder. From there I could survive on the recycler and food server. The cabins were close to being self-contained. A passenger could spend an entire passage without exiting. If I sealed the cabin door, like I had all but one of the others, it would look like it had been done during the supposed re-fit.

First, though, I had to remove any signs of my being aboard Arabella. It took a depressingly short time to clear my belongings from everywhere but my cabin. I was in the number two; I had started there as mate and it had just seemed too much trouble to move after I was promoted to captain. The only difference was the secondary command interface, which was largely virtual and had been easier to move than my few belongings would have been. That it was also one of the main things that would have been noticeably different if the refit had actually taken place. The main controls in the pilot’s deck would stay the same, for maintenance purposes, but the secondary controls would most likely be removed as superfluous.

The other thing would be the AI interface having any sort of a personality. I gave Arabella a few short sets of instructions, and commanded the re-routing of several logical circuits. From now on any auditory responses would use the generic default voice used by most AI’s that had only infrequent contact with people.

The sound part was easy. What made me sweat was setting up a secondary system that was blind to my presence. Arabella easily copied her AI; in fact she kept a regularly updated copy of herself for back-up purposes. What was difficult was thinking up an algorithm that would allow her to lie to her soon-to-be new masters. I was no fly coder, but I had spent enough years working with the AI that the new logic loops I shoveled into her systems would most likely hold up. She would still see me, and respond to my commands, but she would retain no memory or log of the actual interactions. Hopefully this would not interfere with her ability to run the ship. There was simply no time to test my work.

Out of time! Out of time! The firmscreen showed that they were more than two-thirds of the way to the crew space. I powered down the firmscreen, then had a final inspiration. I hustled back to a spares locker, rummaged around and found a pair of fixable sensors. I flew back to the empty captain’s cabin, found a couple of good hiding places for them, and powered them up. The feed I directed to the secondary control center in my cabin. No time to adjust the view, whatever I could see would have to do.

I shoved my v-suit into my cabin and pulled it shut behind me. It was the work of a moment to seal it using the flash welder. It wasn’t airtight, but I had my suit. I struggled into it as I muttered my last few commands to Arabella. I pressed the suit seals together and gave the order for Arabella to vent the crew space. My suit expanded as the air hissed out through the ventilation system into space. Things grew very quiet. All I could hear was my harsh breathing, my own heart hammering against my ribs, and the rustle of suit fabric when I shifted to get a better view of the command projection that hovered six inches in front of the curve of the outer bulkhead.

On it I could see the stow-aways were almost to the hatch. I checked the pressure indicator on the heads-up display of my suit helmet. One-third pressure, or about 300 millibars, and dropping at about 80 millibars/min. Four minutes or so. Too close!

I needed something to slow them down. What could I do without revealing my presence? A burn would take too long to set up, and while it would be dangerous for them to be caught in the central shaft when the engines fired, it might be a little too obvious. Any suspicion on their part was too much. I was pretty close to hiding in plain sight.

I toggled the keypad on the firmscreen in my cabin. They were too close to risk verbal commands on my suit comm. I tapped a set of instructions, and the hull vibrated slightly as two offset cargo spheres were adjusted. The three suited figures froze for the full ninety seconds as the cables moved on their reels, thirty meters aft. Close enough to inspire caution, not so close as to invite suspicion.

I glanced at the heads-up. 120 millibars. Good enough. Even if there was a little residual pressure when they opened the hatch, it wouldn’t be enough to prevent the safety locks from releasing.

It was only moments and they were in. The smallest of the three moved forward to the command deck. The other two began stowing gear in the lone remaining open cabin. Whoever their pilot was knew his stuff; he had the systems live and the pressure building in not much more time than it would have taken me. Within twenty minutes I was able to remove my suit, and quietly creep to my bunk. I snapped the webbing over me, plugged in the earbud, and started to watch, learn, and subvert.


“I outta rip off your head and shit down your neck!” The veins in Hendricks forehead stood out like an angry roadmap. His face was the same orange as his hair. Laver had his hands up, ready if Hendricks launched himself across the cabin at him. It probably would have done no good; Hendricks was a dirtside-dweller, solid muscle kept up by a religious devotion to exercise. Laver had the typical belter build, skinny to the point of being cadaverous. He was fit, but dwelling in a low-gravity environment required far less muscle mass.

I had always planned to retire to the great gravity-well of Earth, and so had worked hard to keep some mass. Even so, my visits between passages had always started out rough. For Laver it would be impossible. As would any sort of combat with Hendricks, who out-massed him by at least 25 kilos.

“What’d I do?” Laver whined.

“What’d you do? You double-crossing stick-man! First the backdoor dealing with your pals at the ladder, and now you are playing with the manifest. You think I wouldn’t catch it?  I ain’t an accountant like you, but I can add two and two.”

I tapped my fingertips on the firmscreen, moved the cabin temperature up another three degrees. The timing here was crucial. I had to keep them making enough distracting noise that Ngyuen didn’t notice the slight lags and specious entries as he prepared Arabella for the final burn that would leave her dead in space, awaiting rendezvous with the other half of their crew.  I had already sweated through the counter calculations when he swung her about. He was clearly unhappy with his solutions, and we had all been tossed around a bit when I miscalculated the pull of an approaching mass that I had managed to prevent Arabella from registering on his screens. 

I was watching Ngyuen now on split display, trying to monitor his actions while keeping the other two loud.

“I didn’t do anything with the manifest!” Because everything Laver said sounded like a question, even I was having trouble believing him, and I was the one who had clumsily doctored the books and left the screen open for Hendricks to find. Just as I had slightly doctored the messages from the member of the docking crew who had been paid to provide them access to the cargo sphere to make it look like Laver had gotten a kick-back from their bribe.

Ngyuen made some minor corrections. I calculated furiously for a few moments, then decided that they could stand. I didn’t want to overplay. All it would take was the suspicion that there might be someone there, and I was done. It would only take Ngyuen a few seconds to uncover my overlay, once he realized it was there. I had laid in a second layer of subterfuge in the systems, but it was tissue thin.

Hendricks made a growling sound and shook his head. Beads of sweat flew from his hair and floated around him. “You lying bastard! Who else could’ve?”

“I don’t know. I don’t understand it,” Laver whined.

“You don’t? Well you are going to get a little understanding, bub. If we didn’t need you for your connections in the Belt, I’d have twisted your arms off already.”

“Both of you shut up,” Ngyuen hissed. He was head down, tapping and frowning at the firmscreen. Good. I just needed to keep him distracted for a few more minutes.

“Tie down. Burn in thirty.”

Hendricks growled again, but pushed back through the hole they had cut into the number four cabin bulkhead and so disappeared from my view. I hadn’t thought they would do that and it had given me a few very bad minutes when they had discussed which they would open. Laver twisted and launched himself at the captain’s bunk, his narrow face twitching in anger.

The counter reached zero. Seventeen minutes later we were back to weightless, the Arabella no longer moving under her own volition.

Laver had spent the whole burn muttering to himself. The moment the engines were silent he was up. “Ngyuen, it had to be Hendricks!” he shouted. “He’s trying to cut me out!”

“Shut up,” Ngyuen said. “It wasn’t Hendricks, and it wasn’t you.”

Both of their heads snapped around to stare at him as he pulled himself aft along the ladder.

“We have a stow-away.” He barked a laugh.

They both stared at him in disbelief.

“I checked the last burn against my personal heads up. The ship’s counter said fourteen minutes. My heads up said seventeen. Someone’s been tinkering with the AI.”

Hendricks shook his head. “Sure it isn’t just a malf? It isn’t like this trip has been seamless.”

“Nope. Everything the ship is telling me is consistent, but none of it adds up. Pretty clever, but not perfect. Chances are, all the petty annoying shit we have had to deal with has come from whoever it is.”

“Where the hell would someone hide?” Hendricks said.

Ngyuen pointed at each of the four remaining sealed cabins. “One of them. Give me a minute. I’ll check the power mapping and I’ll know which one.” He raised his voice, “I’ve got you, you bastard.”


Hendricks completed the circular cut, and shoved the disk through into the cabin. He waved the other two back, and cautiously thrust his head in. He saw only me, armed with the diminutive flash welder. He grinned when he saw me. “It’s a woman,” he said over his shoulder.

The crowded into the cabin. Hendricks lunged across and grabbed my arm, twisted the torch away and flung it spinning into the corner. He twisted my wrist up behind my back. “Got you, bitch.”

I blinked away tears of pain. My gasp fogged the faceplate of my V-suit. I tried to speak, but fear made my throat close, and all I managed was a squeak.

One of the hit me in the stomach, hard. I would have doubled over, but Hendricks had my arm. Bile filled my throat, and my guts felt like they were slammed clear to my spine. I gagged, managed to choke it back.

“Why’s she wearing a suit?” Laver asked.

“Doesn’t matter. It ain’t gonna save her,” Hendricks snarled.

Ngyuen opened the folding knife he carried, and drifted toward me.

I managed finally to clear my throat. “Now would be a good time,” I croaked.

“Oh, it’s going to be a good time,” said Ngyuen. “Just not for you.”

“Done,” whispered a voice in my ear.

The Arabella rang like a bell as the docking clamps of the tug outside seized her nose. Nanoseconds later, she shuddered at the chunk as a two-foot hole blasted through her forward hull. Laver, Ngyuen and Hendricks forgot about me entirely as their whole existence suddenly centered around trying to take their next breath. We were all pulled by the escaping air toward the hole in the cabin bulkhead and formed a human log jam there, three of us gasping and turning blue.


“I get how you overrode the AI so that you came here to Eos rather than their rendezvous point.” The doctor put the finishing touches on my spray cast. That bastard Hendricks had broken my arm. “But how could they not know?”

“I set up a mirrored system. The first thing their pilot did was plug in his course numbers. From there what I had to do was make sure that what he saw on his screens was what he expected.”

She shook her head. “It seems to me that would be pretty easy to catch.”

“Yah. That is why I had to keep finding things to distract them. Bad cargo shifts, personal messages left open, quirks in the life support. It helped that they started out mistrusting each other. All I had to do was feed it, and keep them off balance and uncomfortable.” I was in no hurry to leave the clinic. The hollowed out common space here on Eos was unsettling after eleven months of being locked in my cabin.

“Well, you came out okay, I guess. No heavy lifting or acrobatics for a couple of weeks.” She started putting her instruments away. “The council voted you a bonus, by the way. The governor tried to veto it, the cheap bastard, but they weren’t having it.”

I got up from the table and reluctantly headed for the door. The irony of being agoraphobic in Agora Station was less amusing than might be expected.

“Oh, I almost forgot, I was supposed to tell you that Station Control has a message waiting for you from Earth. Someone named Jesse.”

“Jesse who?” I asked, and smiled for the first time in almost a year.


The End

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