FICTION

FEBRUARY 2021

2021-02_COVER.JPG

Vesta for Beginners

by Holly Schofield

When you live on an asteroid, every day is a day of firsts, but I sure hadn't expected to be staring down the barrel of a rock-pistol before lunchtime.

The morning had started off well enough. My retirement ceremony had been low-key and well-organized. After several dozen handshakes and a short light-rail ride, I steady-strode down the empty flexitube that stretched across Olbers' launch pad, and kanga-hopped up to the platform enclosing the ballistic shuttle's airlock.

 

Just then, an Earther bounded awkwardly up to the platform beside me, a stocky guy in his thirties carrying a large gray tuff-tote. Unusual to see a passenger on this shuttle run: it mostly carries mining tools and other supplies from Olbers' Colony to Dawn City, my new home. He was a stranger to me—round face, chipmunk cheeks, and muscles as lumpy as minor asteroids. With Vesta's population now past three thousand, there're always new faces. But even the sight of his Firster haircut couldn't spoil my good mood today.

I pulled myself through the open airlock hatch into the shuttle's all-purpose cabin and past the four padded seats to the opposite bulkhead. Cozy quarters, but the flight would go quickly. After settling my ancient carrybag down in a cargo rack beside a dozen green shipping crates, I reached for the nearest restraining strap. My hand passed right through it and I glided forward into the bulkhead, like a complete low-grav noob. "Blast it!" It hadn't been a strap at all; just the virtual image of a strap as part of a safety notice—some of that new VR tech that was creeping into the Belt.

I slapped two of the actual velcroed strips around my bag, and relaxed into the seat nearest the hull wall. A couple of hours travelling along Vesta's equator to the tiny colony of Dawn City and I'd be in a whole new world—one of tomatoes, jicama, and cauliflower. I had a volunteer position in Dawn's greenhouses lined up along with a fine little bunkpod. I gave a tiny fist pump.

The Earther let his tuff-tote slowly sink into the rack next to mine, and pulled himself into the seat beside me. His outfit of loose beige peejays wasn't much to look at and what was with that stiff collar? I smoothed the sleeve of my own form-fitting peejays. I'd printed a really nice set this morning for the ceremony, all classically crimson and cobalt and lavender swirls.

"Name's Brem Coopman," he said, stretching a hand over.

 

"Talia." I shook it unenthusiastically. Hopefully he wasn't the chatty type. I didn't have much to talk to Firsters about and he clearly didn't recognize who I was. I fingered the medallion my team—my former team, damn it I'd miss them—had presented to me this morning. It was made from a particularly nice piece of olive-colored Vestian basalt and simply engraved In appreciation. There'd been no way to list all the degrees I'd earned, nor the many careers I'd had: from miner to union boss to coder to mayor then finally to legal counsel. And now, I mentally chuckled, assistant gardener.

I pulled my slate off my arm and accessed the shuttle's exterior cam view. A mining multi-rover zipping by, the plume of dust settling slowly in the 0.025 gees. A truck filled with refined ore—scandium oxide and other such goodies—drove itself into a storage bay. In the distance, our space elevator loomed, taut cables climbing into blackness overhead. I admit to a swell of pride as I pictured the endless carloads of mineral products rising and rising then getting shipped elsewhere in the Belt. Like that old joke says: Vesta is really going places. One tonne at a time.

I'd put in my time, helping this old asteroid become a country in its own right, evolving from its jumble of corporate employees, contractors, and outcasts. The noob immigrants, green as they were, were continuing the awesomeness; at least, if reactionaries like this Firster guy didn't spoil things. The so-called First Protection and Improvement League made my blood boil, with protectionist policies aimed at keeping Earth soft and fat at the expense of hard-working Vestians. But that wasn't my problem anymore—gardening was my new focus and I was damn well going to enjoy it.

"We're going the long way around, right?" 

 

"Not the way you want to think of it," I said, suppressing a sigh. "Vesta is one fast-turning lump of rock—the tale goes that if you jump high enough on a trampoline, you'll come down kilometers away in the next crater. So you save fuel if you work with the rotational spin rather than against it. To reach Dawn City five hundred kilometers west, we're going to go almost two-thirds of the way around the equator to the east while Vesta spins along with us, a two-hour trip of twelve hundred kilometers versus going 'the short way'. Get it?"

 

"It makes that much difference to the amount of fuel?"

 

"Yep, because of the lower delta-v at launch. Us Vestians aren't wealthy, you know." My voice got tart. I guess we couldn't avoid politics, after all.

My slate gave the toot-toot that meant there was an audio message from the cockpit—no AI pilots for us. Maybe someday Vestian tech would catch up to Earth's but, after five decades of settlement, we still couldn't land shuttles without a human pilot or two.

Over the speaker someone cleared their throat. "This is your co-pilot. All systems are go for launch. Have a nice flight." I wondered who the pilot was—he sounded young—but I decided I didn't really care. I was retired now.

 

"Vesta could get wealthier if you let the League run things," Coopman said mildly.

 

I snorted and tilted my chair ninety degrees, putting my butt Vesta-ward for launch.

 

He tipped his chair back to align with mine. "We make a lot of sense, sis."

 

"Not to me," I answered crisply.

 

He sniffed. "You free-lunchers think you know everything. What with Earth's current financial crisis, higher taxes on the outposts are the obvious answer..." He went on, spouting nonsense right out of a League brochure, wrong on multiple levels.

I snorted again. Kids always thought macroeconomic problems had simple solutions. I tuned him out—not my problem.

The airlocks cycled shut with a soft clang and I blew out a breath of relief—soon the jets would be too loud for him to talk over.

 

Coopman twitched in his seat. "These things don't usually crash, do they?"

 

I glanced over and chortled at his wide eyes. "Better get those wrinkles out of your peejays, tough guy."

The cabin vibrated and a familiar rumble started up.

 

A force of about half a gee pressed me into my seat and my joints protested their age. The jets drowned out anything Coopman might be saying.

 

The burn only lasted a few seconds before we entered free fall. I closed my eyes and got comfy, enjoying the floating sensation as I bobbed against my seat harness. I must have fallen into a light doze when the guy suddenly called out, "Communication emergency override!"

What the hell? The ship obligingly opened the comms and I checked the time: we should be halfway to Dawn City, gliding smoothly above the wasteland of sand and rocks below.

He pulled out a fancy slate. "Captain, can you hear me? This is Brem Coopman of The First Protection and Improvement League. You're going to want to hear this." His slate buzzed with feedback and he adjusted a few controls with a practised flick of his wrist.

 

I twisted in my harness. So, not an emergency. What could be the point of illegally overriding the comms?

Both our slates pinged in unison. "This is Captain Yosef. Get your Firster ass the hell off my airwaves!"

 

Coopman glowered. "This is a hijack."

 

I stiffened. How does anyone hijack a shuttle that runs between the only two settlements within an astronomical unit?

 

"Make a deposit of 200,000 credits into this bank account or else." Coopman swiped at his slate. The beeps went on for some time with more digits than any legitimate account—some sort of darkside cryptoaccount. "Think of it as paying a tariff." He chuckled harshly.

 

The captain's voice was squeaky but belligerent. "And if I don't?"

 

I edged my fingers toward my shoulder harness. Coopman twisted in his seat to face me and put one hand in his pocket. He drew out a rock-pistol. It was a standard prospecting tool but here in the shuttle cabin the barrel seemed as big as a railgun. My stomach churned; I was used to staring down the other end at recalcitrant ore samples, not being the target.

I looked right into his beady eyes. "You kill me and there'll be hell to pay." If I was going to go down in history as the first ex-Mayor of Vesta to be murdered, it wouldn't be without a fight.

 

His brow wrinkled in confusion. "Huh? We need you alive, sis."

 

I eyed him. Something didn't add up.

 

"Ah, I get it." Captain Yosef's voice, flat, resigned. "You're after the cargo, right?"

 

I glanced over at the crates stacked by the bulkhead. "Mining tools? Why would—"

 

The captain cut me off. "Gene stocks for Dawn greenhouses. Vital and expensive." He gave a very long, almost theatrical, sigh.

 

I skimmed a few labels. Critical stuff, stuff that Dawn couldn't afford to lose.

 

"You'll never be able to resell it on Vesta," I told Coopman. "The black market isn't—"

 

Coopman cut me off, too. "Captain, tell the base what I want or I destroy every last crate." He swung the pistol toward the stack.

 

#

As we flew, Captain Yosef made the occasional angry mutter about the police but I didn't see what they could do; Vesta doesn't have much of a security force, we're usually too damn busy to make trouble.

Coopman seemed preternaturally calm. Once, he rubbed his wrist where his ID chip shimmered below his skin. That shook me like nothing else. If his false ID had been good enough to fool both the Ceres and Vesta shuttle port security systems, he had some big backers.

So, now what? I couldn't fight a muscle-bound Earther like him, even with his clumsy high-grav reflexes. I watched him velcro the gun to his armrest within easy reach and thought it over, rubbing a thumb across my medallion. My medallion! Could his personal greed outweigh his common sense? Maybe if I got him closer, I could grab the gun. I began to lift the chain off my head. "Here, take this, it's worth a year's income back on Earth and you could—"

"That piece of crap?" He smirked and turned away, then began dictating a long droning Firster tirade about perceived injustices into his slate. Then he calmly uploaded it to the shuttle comms, and, illegally and traceably, patched it through to all of Dawn City and Olbers via the sat-comms.

It made no sense.

 

The Olbers police would send a jumper antispinward, using three times the fuel but getting to Dawn City before we did, ready to meet the shuttle.  If Coopman didn’t surrender, he’d be dead before he left the airlock. I leaned toward him. "Give up now and I'll use my legal skills to help you in court."

"You think you free-lunchers can stop the League? Get a grip, sis." A fumbled unbuckling of his harness and he bounced over to his tuff-tote. He slid the self-zip open, exposing a single-person jetpack, the kind that masses about fifty kilos and holds ten liters of fuel. With one finger, he tapped the jetpack's screen. It lit up and began to run diagnostics.

"You're going to jet off into the outback like some ancient-style bankrobber?" I shook my head, trying very hard not to look at the gun on the armrest.

"Stupid old sister. There's a whole League colony right down there below us." He jabbed a finger at the decking.

 

For a moment I almost believed it.

 

But, no. It was impossible. No way to hide it or supply it.

 

He glanced at his slate—checking the time, I thought, or our exact location. The jetpack's diagnostics flashed green. There were only five liters of fuel and just forty minutes of oxygen. He'd never make it.

 

He unlatched a bright red p-suit from the rack and checked his slate again, before looking over at me. "Go to the bathroom."

 

"I don't need to," I said, primly.

 

"Go. You're in my way." 

 

"I'm way over here, minding my own—" I stopped. I probably couldn’t overpower him but I had to try. And this might be my only chance. And I really did need to pee. I unbuckled my seat harness, taking my time like the feeble old lady he thought I was.

He stuffed his feet into the p-suit's legs without velcroing his backside to the wall first, awkwardly tipping forward, heels lifting, arms flailing.

 

Now! 

I pushed off my armrests, twisted toward the gun, ripped it free, and rotated behind the seats until I was facing him, one hand on a seatback and the other pointing the gun right at his ugly face.

 

He had one boot braced against the wall and one on the floor, arms outstretched, like the world's worst low-grav ballerina. "Oh, for shit's sake." He gathered up the loose p-suit sleeves floating around his waist and shoved off toward me.

 

I fired.

And fired again.

 

The third time, I realized there was no happy blinking green telltale next to the gun's rear sight. The battery was stone dead.

 

I gripped the handle like a club, ready to swing at his face when he got close enough. He used the opposing seatback to slow himself and we eyed each other like prizefighters.

 

Hang on; it didn't add up. Without a functional gun, how could he have acted on his threat to destroy the crates? Shove them out the airlock? Then why risk bringing a gun through security at all? Either his plan was incredibly stupid or I was missing something important.

 

He was quick and he was strong, and my wrist was getting tired, and we both knew it.

 

With a sudden lunge across the seats, he twisted the gun out of my hand before his shoulder hit the bulkhead behind us.

I pedalled backward, panting. "What kind of terrorist are you?" I whispered.

In silence, he tossed the gun too hard toward the closed airlock hatch. We both watched it slow-bounce around the cabin several times before it drifted up against the crates.

Then he pushed off the bulkhead and his fist loomed in my face. "Bathroom. Now."

 

#

 

In the tiny cubicle, I used the zero-g facilities with relief then leaned against the compartment's bulkhead. My slate's comms could contact anyone on Vesta...but who? We'd be in Dawn City in half an hour. The Olbers police would be well on their way. There was no point calling them now.

So, the only ones worth talking to were Captain Yosef and his co-pilot but Coopman's hacking meant he could listen in to everything I had to say. I buzzed them anyway.

 

"Keep the comms free unless you have an emergency," Captain Yosef said, that squeak still in his voice.

 

"Coopman's gun is non-functional. One of you come to the main cabin and take him down, please."

 

Dead silence.

 

"Did that transmit?" 

 

More silence, except for bumping sounds from Coopman out in the main cabin. Was Yosef giving orders offline to his co-pilot? Was the co-pilot chickening out? For galaxies' sake! If I'd been thirty years younger and twenty kilos heavier, Coopman would have two black eyes and be tied to the cargo rack by now.

"Both of us are needed to fly the ship at this stage," Captain Yosef finally said.

 

"In free fall? I don't think so!" Could they really be that afraid?

 

"Just lock yourself in and it'll be over soon."

 

"You're serious?" I couldn't believe it.

 

"OlbCorp's finance department deposited the full amount, on the CEO's orders, two minutes ago."

I could believe that: Anita always took the easy way out. Yosef continued, "It's up to off-world cops now."

 

"But Coopman will get away!" I slammed a hand on the wall. Get away, or die trying, that is. Jail with rehabilitation was only right and just. "Do something, damn it!" 

 

"I'm not a cop, sister. I don't fight people." That whiny tone again. Some captain. And I was losing hope the co-pilot would step up. He seemed too scared to even speak.

Scraping sounds now from the main cabin, growing louder.

 

No guts, no glory. Maybe I could disarm Coopman's jetpack, trapping him on-board. I reached for the bathroom latch just as something banged heavily against it. I pushed hard but the door stuck after a couple of centimeters. Through the gap, I could see nothing but the flat green of cargo crates. Coopman's scornful voice came from the other side: "You're blocked in, sis. Have a nice trip."

#

 

Minutes went by. No one spoke. I latched the door again against the remote possibility of leaks and pressed my ear against it. More scrapes and bangs from the main cabin. The jetpack would help Coopman de-orbit and then what? I used my slate to project a map. He'd be landing in Divalia Fossa, the deepest, most desolate trough on Vesta. No chance of a Firster colony there or radar would've already spotted it faster than a nosebleed on white peejays. Even if Coopman was willing to bunny-hop the three hundred-plus klicks from here to Dawn City in his p-suit, his air would run out before he even sprang over the trough's crumbly lip. Even idiots shouldn't have to die like that.

The soft whrrr of the inner airlock hatch, muffled clanging in the lock itself, then silence.

 

Poor Coopman. I winced. Then, I couldn't help it, I opened my slate. The outside cam view tilted down to its maximum angle as someone, probably Captain Yosef, directed it: glimpses of the airlock hatch swinging outward, chaotic images of the jetpack's oxygen tank, the crimson sleeve of a p-suit, the glint of a helmet, the blackness of space followed by grey horizon slashed diagonally by the dark erratic line of the five-kilometer-deep trough.

Captain Yosef's voice: "What the hell? He jumped?"

 

"Looks that way," the co-pilot spoke up for the first time since Coopman had pulled out his gun, a small twang of tension apparent but otherwise calm, almost relieved.

 

I listened to the triple beep indicating the airlock had repressurized, then I unlatched the bathroom door. Using the opposite wall as leverage, I managed to push with my legs against the door enough to shift the crates a finger's width before I had to stop, winded. I wheezed into my slate, "Captain, can you let me out?"

The co-pilot answered, "Sure, in a minute."

 

No, now! I let my anger fuel me and thrust against the door so hard my knee arced with pain. The crates shifted enough for me to get an arm through and shove them aside.

 

I swung over to the bulkhead door, wending past the now-drifting crates. A few deep breathing exercises and I spoke into my slate, "Captain, may I come forward?" as calmly and firmly as if I'd been chairing an annual board meeting.

 

An answering low buzz, followed by a tiny click as the cockpit door unlocked and slid open. I swung into the tiny cockpit behind the two helmeted men gesturing with their sensi-gloves in initiation of de-orbit procedures. While I caught my breath, I watched the process—it was fairly straightforward and somewhat automated, not like the old days. The one with more bars on his peejays must be Captain Yosef. He flicked the final command for a hard burn, then twisted around to look at me. "Guess that's over, then." Above the sturdy faceguard, only strained eyes were visible.

"Did you see where he landed?" I asked, even though I could guess the answer would be no.

"Not a chance," he said. "Not at this angle. The trough's too deep and we're way past it now."

 

"Better buckle in," the co-pilot added, without turning his head. "Landing soon. Start thinking about the statement you'll make to the cops."

 

Had I just let it all happen? Not a good way to start a new phase of my life. I returned to my seat and massaged my knee thoughtfully and uselessly.

 

#

The Olbers lead cop—yet another unfamiliar face—raised her voice above the hectic commotion of Dawn City's port. "It's out of our jurisdiction now."

"But the whole thing doesn't make any sense," I protested. "You have an obligation to investigate further."

 

"Go on home, sis," she said, gently.

 

I bristled. Her lean form meant she was a Vestian by birth yet she hadn't recognized my name when I filed my statement. Well, what did I expect? A raw beginner, just like the even-younger second cop standing beside her, and the captain and co-pilot who waited impatiently, still in their crash helmets.

Suddenly, I felt ancient. 

 

But that was no reason to give up. I glared at her. "Just think about it. Just for a minute. Coopman could never actually have believed there's a whole colony stashed in the trough."

 

"Seems that he did." She shrugged. "Typical terrorist cell psychology, recruiting patsies."

"We're not terrorists! And we're not all idiots!" The other cop, a skinny near-child whom I now noticed was sporting a Firster haircut, snapped his slate back onto his sleeve. "It's a legit movement!"

The lead cop shook her head. "Suck it out, lieutenant. No politics on the job." I knew that tone—I'd practically invented it. Good for her, noob that she was.

She turned back to me. "But really, sis, case closed. If Coopman did survive his landing, a rescue mission is pointless and expensive. He'll be running out of O2 just about..."—she consulted her slate—"now."

She was right about that. I involuntarily shuddered as she shrugged. "Earth police forces can try and trace the money although we all know that's hopeless. OlbCorp will just have to write it off."

Captain Yosef shifted his daybag on his shoulder. "Officer, can we leave now? We have a ship to catch, got some R&R time on Ceres."

The co-pilot, a well-built fellow, nodded in agreement so hard his chin strap swung.

I glanced at the time. I could be at my new bunk in Dawn City in minutes. Put my feet up in a hammock, pop a bulb of red wine, and read from my slate's collection of history books. Let these people work out their own problems. With sudden decisiveness, I grabbed my carrybag so fast, my feet almost flew out under me.

As I steady-strode away, the bitter taste of loneliness caught in my throat. 

I had no one.

 

What could Dawn City really offer me? The average age was under forty, even younger than back at Olbers.

 

A series of lovers had come and gone over the decades, some lured back to Earth by promises of lower risk and better pay, never to return. Twenty years ago, I'd adopted the teenage son of a mining colleague after she'd been killed in a blasting accident but he'd moved to Ceres after a few years.

All I had at this stage of life was Vesta's collective dream. I'd carried it with me through low rations, cave-ins, and the sheer terror of living each day on an airless rock.

I stopped, carrybag swaying.

 

That dream meant something.

And it meant I couldn't leave the port until this was resolved. I couldn't let one person's actions ruin all that Vesta stood for. Even though Coopman must be dead, the money was in the League's coffers. And other Firsters might attempt the same thing again. OlbCorp couldn't take monetary hits like that too often without hurting all of us.

Old as I was, dismissed as I was, the noobs in charge needed a hand or the bad guys were going to win.

 

I turned back.

The lead cop was working her slate. I waited until she looked up. "Tell me, why didn't these masterminds have Coopman land in Dawn City and let him get arrested rather than be killed?"

"Tidier." If she shrugged any harder, her heels would lift off the floor.

 

Heat washed over me and I knew my face was growing flushed. Ten years of menopause meant I was well used to pushing past that so I snapped back, "Why didn't he just toss me out the door along with him? Or bring a bomb on board and destroy the shuttle with the three of us on it? That would've been even tidier. Let's think this through."

To her credit, she nodded. "All right. Go ahead."

 

"There're dozens of questions. Coopman seemed to want me as a witness at first, so why put me in the bathroom later? What did Coopman want me as a witness for, anyway? And why didn't he jump out closer to Dawn so he'd have a better chance of survival? And why was he so calm if he was a suicidal fanatic? And how come his shitty little speech didn't have any...any passion to it? Surely we can puzzle out one of those answers." I paused to catch my breath.

The lead cop studied me and the baby cop looked at her for direction.

I swung around to see Yosef and the co-pilot already halfway across the empty port foyer, steady-striding like their R&R was the most important thing in the world. The co-pilot's gait wasn't the smooth shuffle a long-time Vestian would use.

 

My carrybag softly bumped my hip as its momentum caught up to me and I recalled the VR straps when I'd first boarded. And some history I'd been reading about last month.

Huh. Maybe Coopman wasn't so stupid. And maybe there was a reason the last few hours had all seemed like the most tropey vid in existence.

I glanced at the wall schedule: only one flight off-planet today. I opened my mouth then closed it. How should I handle it? Those two clowns could have any number of guns or bombs in their daybags. If I challenged them, they'd get pretty desperate, pretty quickly. To orchestrate the arrests without anyone getting hurt was going to take some finesse, especially with inexperienced cops.

Maybe I could use that: play on everyone's inexperience. I pushed down my bag, and made a plan during the two seconds it took to reach the floor.

"Hang on, guys!" I called after the co-pilot and the captain. "Hold up! Just a quick question about, um, cargo requirements. I'm thinking of shipping a large case of wine..." I kept babbling as I gave the lead cop a hard squint and tugged at her elbow. She resisted at first but then came, humoring the old sister, I guess. The baby cop trailed after us, uncertainly.

"Tell me, are there cameras that show the cargo actually being loaded? Or the passengers? I need proof for insurance liability." I raised my voice, almost shouting my lies. "It's very expensive wine."

The two guys didn't slow, almost bunny-hopping now toward the far exit door. I quick-bounded until I caught up and grabbed Yosef's sleeve, letting momentum swing me around until I was in front of him. The lead cop rudely grasped my shoulder to bring himself to a halt, then straight-armed the baby cop before he crashed into her. She crossed her arms and glared at Yosef. "Answer her."

"There's no need for cams, sis." He shook off my hand. "The cargo's tagged. And passengers always have their own tracking methods." He looked pointedly at my sleeved slate.

I turned to the baby cop. "Be a dear and fetch my bag?" I gestured back to where we'd been standing. He gave a small respectful wave and went to fetch it. I corrected my thinking—some Firsters could be pulled back from the brink—not everyone in fringe groups became terrorists.

The lead cop stirred restlessly but I waited a few seconds until the baby cop was far enough across the floor before raising my eyebrows at Yosef. "How about crew? Any proof of boarding?"

He laughed uneasily and took off his helmet. Sweat had matted his thinning hair into tiny curls. "Nope. But since you can't land without two pilots, there's your proof—"

"That's just a safety precaution, not a necessity."

His eyes slid sideways. "What's that got to do with anything?"

The lead cop narrowed her eyes, "You mean they—"

"Take off your helmet?" I turned to the co-pilot. "You must be hot under it, too." 

He gave me a thin-lipped smile and drew it off, revealing a narrow-chinned face and a smooth-shaven scalp. "Satisfied?"

"You know," I turned to the lead cop. "I was reading the other day how, on Earth, advanced VR tech can even mask a person's face. Fill out their cheeks, change their skin tone and hair. New advances in projectors. Set right into shirt collars, don't ya know."

 

"Yeahhh," she said, "Come to think of it, I skimmed a report that mentioned it last week. Didn't think tech like that'd reach Vesta quickly, though." She shifted to her left, coming between the co-pilot and the port doors and gave him a sharp look. "Remove your shirt, please. I want to check your collar."

 

I hopped a safe distance to a nearby wall and gripped a handhold. Time for me to bow out.

 

It went almost as I'd intended.

 

First, Yosef crumbled. He bent his head. "I give up. All I did was help him get the false co-pilot ID and then play along." He held out his hands, wrists together.

 

Next, just as I'd anticipated, the co-pilot—whoever he was—panicked, jerking away from the lead cop and fleeing back into the building. He bounded awkwardly along, right into the path of where I'd conveniently placed the baby cop.

 

The co-pilot, with his Earther's arrogance, decided his big muscles could overpower his scrawny opponent. At the height of his last hop, he tried for a right hook. The baby cop dodged easily and the failed blow sent the co-pilot comically spinning toward the port window.

 

The baby cop grinned up at him, foolishly close. Sure enough the co-pilot braced a fist high on the glass and attempted a roundhouse kick, striking the baby cop on the hand.

Finally, after some more flailing about, the baby cop triggered his security lasso like he should've done in the first place. The wire loop encircled the co-pilot's ankle and the cop slowly drew him down and in.

Kids, all of them. I'd screwed some things up badly in my time, too. Screwing up is part of the job description, any job description.

The baby cop tied the lasso to a luggage dolly and cinched it tight, wincing in pain.

"Good work," I called over.

 

He clasped his left hand, a hangdog look on his face. "I think my thumb is broken."

 

Probably hadn't taken his daily calcium pills. Live and learn, kid, live and learn. I pushed off from the wall toward the center of the floor.

 

As I returned with my bag, the lead cop had just finished hauling the zipcuffed captain over to the dolly. Yosef was babbling on and on about how his gambling debts had given him no choice, the co-pilot was actually his very persuasive cousin, and none of this was his fault.

 

She parked him beside the co-pilot as roughly as low-grav allowed, then quirked her mouth in my direction. "Thanks, sis." Fishing a hand into the co-pilot's collar, she eventually detached a tiny sleek-looking micro-projector. "Blast it, this tech's going to be trouble."

 

"I'm betting, if you turn it on, the projected image has a round face and an evil glower," I said. "Sure fooled me on the shuttle." I wasn't going to mention how the strap had fooled me as well. I dug through my bag for a sheet of memory plastic and molded it around the baby cop's thumb—no point waiting on the paramedics when I could splint it myself.

 

The lead cop's eyes now held a gleam of respect. "Don't underestimate the value of experience, eh."

 

"Nor knowledge of history. Did you know," I said, "Today's the 125th anniversary of an unsolved hijacking near a place called Portland City, back on Earth?"

 

Yosef glanced over at his fellow conspirator who scowled back. "I told him to pick a random name, not Brem Coopman. He thought no one would remember DB Cooper."

 

The baby cop, cradling his plastic-encased hand, looked puzzled. I took pity on him: "There never was a Brem Coopman. Yosef's cousin here boarded as a pretend passenger, using the facial micro-projector and probably some voice alteration software. Yosef just played a recording of his cousin's voice as he single-handedly launched us from Olbers. Then the cousin stuck me in the bathroom, turned off the micro-projector, and stripped off the casual peejays that covered his co-pilot's set. He threw the jetpack, peejays, slate, and gun out the lock before he entered the cockpit and took the co-pilot's seat for the landing. Come to think of it, he should've thrown out the microprojector out the lock, too. Incompetent so-and-so."

 

The lead cop said, "So this isn't about Firster politics."

 

"Right. It's nothing but sheer robbery. Untraceable money and a supposedly dead hijacker. Using me as a witness so the cops would think it was a dead-end trail."

 

The baby cop scratched his ear. "Whoa."

 

I nodded. "One of the more obscure theories about the Portland heist." I picked up my bag and my bad knee twanged. "You folks need better security," I told the lead cop, covering my wince. "I'll be complaining to your boss."

 

She grinned ruefully, one hand on her belt. "The police chief? Go ahead, if you can find her. She's just come from Earth, still getting acclimatized. She's one busy sister, like everyone else."

And so I said my goodbyes, went to my new bunkpod, and settled in. I lasted a week transplanting salad greens. Turns out gardening requires a bunch of know-how and the young kids that run the greenhouses understand a hell of a lot more than me about fertilizer and hydroponics. I managed to kill enough arugula to fill an ore truck.

 

The flight back to Olbers didn't take long. I deadheaded back on that same lead cop's patrol ship. And, today, I talked my way into an interview with that new Police Chief. She'll let me know tomorrow if I got the job. Exciting times, here on Vesta!

 

So, for the first time in a week, I'm looking forward to waking up. With my decades of programming experience, my management skills, and my cargo hold-sized cynicism, I should make a damn good security consultant to her department.

 

That is, if she's willing to take on a raw beginner.

THE END

Holly Schofield travels through time at the rate of one second per second, oscillating between the alternate realities of city and country life. Her stories have appeared in Analog, Lightspeed, and Tesseracts, are used in university curricula, and have been translated into several languages. She hopes to save the world through science fiction and homegrown heritage tomatoes. Find her at 

hollyschofield.wordpress.com.

Fiction by Holly Schofield:

"Vesta for Beginners" February 2021

"Wicked Problem" February 2020

© 2020 by Utopia Science Fiction

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