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JOVIAN UPRISING - 2315

SCIENCE-FICTION NOVEL

BY MICHEL POULIN

© 2012

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WARNING TO READERS

THIS NOVEL CONTAINS DESCRIPTIONS OF SCENES

OF VIOLENCE, SEXUALITY AND CRUDE LANGUAGE

AND IS NOT MEANT FOR YOUNG CHILDREN. THIS IS

ALSO A WORK OF PURE FICTION AND ANY APPARENT

SIMILARITIES WITH PERSONS OR EVENTS OF THE

PRESENT ARE FORTUITOUS.

FOREWORD

THE AUTHOR, WHEN WRITING THIS NOVEL IN 2011, USED THE KNOWN

INFORMATION AVAILABLE THEN ON THE MAKEUP OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM.

HOWEVER, THE RAPID RATE OF ASTRONOMICAL DISCOVERIES MAY MAKE

SOME DATA ON PLANETS, MOONS AND ASTEROIDS AS USED IN THIS NOVEL

LOOK OUTDATED. FOR THIS, THE AUTHOR ASKS FOR THE INDULGENCE OF

THE READERS.

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TABLE OF CONTENT

CHAPTER 1 – INHERITANCE ........................................................... 4

CHAPTER 2 – CARGO RUN ........................................................... 15

CHAPTER 3 – PIRATES ON THE PROWL ..................................... 45

CHAPTER 4 – REFIT AND SHORE LEAVE .................................... 59

CHAPTER 5 – A BRAND NEW SHIP ............................................. 104

CHAPTER 6 – POWERPLAY ......................................................... 117

CHAPTER 7 – MARS EXPEDITION .............................................. 136

CHAPTER 8 – BATTLE FOR MARS .............................................. 174

CHAPTER 9 – COUP D’ÉTAT ....................................................... 202

CHAPTER 10 – NORTH AGAINST SOUTH .................................. 213

CHAPTER 11 – THE WAR IS OVER ............................................. 247

M.S.S. KOSTROMA ....................................................................... 263

BIBLIOGRAPHY ............................................................................. 264

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CHAPTER 1 – INHERITANCE

09:18 (Universal time)

Thursday, February 4, 2315

Notary’s office, city of Callisto Prime

Callisto (8th moon of Jupiter)

Jupiter System

“…I hereby bequeath total and complete ownership of my ship, the MSS

KOSTROMA, to my beloved niece, Tina Forster. This includes all the unattached spare modules, ground support equipment and stocks of spare parts, fuel and other supplies held in my name in the hangars and warehouses of the Jovian Shipping Lines at the Callisto Prime spaceport, plus the bank account linked to the MSS KOSTROMA.” The tall, brown-haired young woman sitting in one of the chairs set facing the notary’s desk opened her mouth under the combined shock and surprise of hearing this part of her uncle’s last will. The MSS KOSTROMA, a multipurpose interplanetary cargo ship in which she held the positions of first pilot and temporary captain, was a behemoth with a mass when empty of 2,560,000 metric tons and an overall length of 1,260 meters. Even after nearly 26 years of plying the commercial space lanes, it was still worth over five billion credits! Then, the full realization of the demands and responsibilities this unexpected gift meant dawned on Tina. Even though interplanetary space travel was now routine, space commerce was still a risky, fiercely cut-throat business. Many negligent or incompetent ship owners had ended up bankrupt, buried under debts from bad contracts or catastrophic breakdowns resulting from negligent maintenance. One could not as well lay still and wait for contracts to show up, on pain of seeing the better deals snatched away by more savvy entrepreneurs. Even though she knew and understood well the rules of that game, Tina knew as well that she was no business shark or shipping magnate. Fortunately, she had as part of her crew someone who could take good care of the financial aspect of this gift from Uncle Bill.

The few other witnesses invited to the reading of Bill Forster’s last will, distant relatives and friends mostly, ended up on their part with minor but still valuable parts of 5

his estate. Bill Forster had been a widowed man and had few relatives left alive, with Tina being the closest in the remaining family tree. Tina herself had lost her parents and two siblings in a tragic space accident that had also cost the lives of 64 other people seven years ago, when the ship transporting them had been hit by a stray piece of space debris near Jupiter. As glamorous as life in space could appear, it was still way more dangerous than living on the old Earth, as polluted and depleted as it was now.

Spacers, as they were called by Terrans, realized that but most would not even dream of returning to live permanently on Earth. The cradle of Humanity was in the year 2315 an overcrowded place, with its 8.2 billion inhabitants living on a world whose natural resources had been severely depleted, or even exhausted in certain cases. Herculean efforts had been made to clean up the worst of the pollution from centuries of neglect and abuse, but much of the past beauty of Earth was now gone forever.

The notary, his reading of the last will completed, then distributed the deeds, electronic checks and property titles that had constituted the estate of Bill Forster, making the recipients sign for them before shaking hands with them. On her part, Tina left the office with the ownership papers of the KOSTROMA and its various ground equipment and stores, plus the bank account linked to the KOSTROMA’s space operations. That account by itself was worth 48.3 million credits. However, Tina knew that this seemingly huge sum would be needed as a financial buffer to pay the ship’s operational expenses, like the personnel payroll and the fuel bills, until profits from future or ongoing contracts could refill that bank account. It would definitely not be smart to burn that money in a wild spending spree. At the age of 28, Tina was a responsible woman, made even more so by her thirteen years spent as a crewmember of the KOSTROMA.

Leaving the ten-storey building in which the notary’s office was, Tina glanced up at the curved ceiling of the giant air and water-tight tube containing this section of the buried city of Callisto Prime. The tube itself had a diameter of 120 meters and was connected to a series of similar tubes forming a kilometer-long residential and commercial district, with its avenue lined on both sides with prefabricated buildings and parks. The ceiling was covered by a huge plasma screen that now showed a clear blue sky, with a few dispersed white clouds. That would progressively change to a star-filled night sky in the evening, to give the impression to the citizens of Callisto Prime that they 6

were living on some Earth city. That, and the Earth-like gravity provided by artificial gravity matting installed throughout the city, helped the inhabitants to feel at home on what was in reality an alien world, half water ice and half rock, with a tenuous, unbreathable atmosphere. Those who wanted to observe the real landscape of Callisto, with the huge orb of Jupiter in the black sky of space, had to go up from the city complex, situated forty meters under the ice crust of the moon’s surface, to one of the observation domes emerging from the ice. Callisto Prime, with a population approaching two million people, was made up of hundreds of sections of tubes interconnected together and buried under the ice to provide protection against space radiations and meteorites. In this, Callisto Prime was very similar to the other cities of the Outer Solar System.

Jumping on the rolling sidewalk running the length of the avenue, Tina then jumped again, this time on the parallel high-speed sidewalk, and let herself be transported by the mobile rubberized carpet. If she wanted to go the other way, she would only need to get off the high-speed strip, step on a second low-speed sidewalk, then on a fixed walkway, before stepping again on the rolling sidewalks, which formed a long closed oval along the avenue. The whole system, using electric motors, was both pollution and noise-free, while permitting people to go around at speeds of up to ten kilometers per hour. For the handicapped without the minimal balance needed to use the rolling sidewalks, they could use small electric karts along the fixed walkway, which was also used by small delivery vehicles. After a fifteen minute trip, Tina arrived at her destination, a bank that held the account she had just inherited. There, armed with the papers received from the notary, she formally put the ownership of the account under her name.

To get to her next destination, the offices of the Jovian Space Administration, or JSA in short, Tina took the electric subway line running the length of the central spine tubes of the city, arriving in six minutes at the Callisto Prime Spaceport. The sprawling complex, situated for safety reasons four kilometers outside of the city limits, was also mostly under the surface ice of the moon, except for a dozen landing platforms on elevators that stuck out of the ice. Taking a deep breath before entering to control her growing excitement, Tina walked in the reception hall of the JSA and made her way to the third floor offices of the Space Registrar. The clerk that greeted her there with a big 7

smile was a young and handsome man of Asian descent, prompting Tina to smile warmly in return.

“Good day, mister! I am here to register the change of ownership of a ship, the MSS KOSTROMA.”

“Certainly, miss.” Said the clerk while typing quickly in his computer the name of the ship, calling up on his screen the ship’s file. “It is presently listed as being owned by a Bill Forster. Do you have documents to prove the change of ownership, miss?”

“I certainly do, mister. My uncle, Bill Forster, recently died and he bequeathed me his ship and associated equipment and supplies in his last will. Here are the documents given to me by the notary.”

The young clerk took the documents handed over by Tina and examined them carefully, then made a number of computer searches to confirm their authenticity. While doing so he smiled apologetically to Tina.

“You will excuse me if I run a number of checks, miss: your new ship is a multi megaton-class cargo ship at full load and represents quite a large value. I will also have to have my supervisor verify himself your papers. There aren’t very many megaton-class cargo ships in the Jovian lists. In fact, there are only six such ships in the Jovian lists. Your KOSTROMA is the third biggest of the lot, miss. If we look at the whole Solar System, there is a total of just 22 megaton-class ships still in operation. Your ship is sixth in order of mass at full displacement in the Solar System. You have the right to be proud, miss.”

‘’The sixth biggest? I thought that it was only the seventh one.’’

‘’They recently retired the old SIRIUS, miss. Apart of being over ninety years old, its technology was outdated and made it commercially inefficient on the interplanetary lanes.’’

“The sixth biggest ship in the Solar System. Hot damn!” Exclaimed Tina, not a little proud. “Thanks for that info, mister.”

“You’re welcomed, miss.” Replied the smiling clerk, liking this very pretty client.

“My own checks are completed. I will now transfer the dossier to my supervisor, who will do the final checks and approval.”

That took another nine minutes, at the end of which the clerk’s supervisor came to the reception counter to shake hands with Tina and congratulate her on her new ownership. He then promised her that all the customs and space authorities in the 8

Jovian System would be informed within the hour. Feeling like a queen, Tina left the JSA offices and then wondered what she would do next. Feeling her stomach grumble, she checked her wristwatch and saw that it was nearly noon, Universal Time. Seeing a good restaurant nearby, she decided to celebrate her newfound fortune with a good meal and a bottle of wine. She certainly had the financial means for that now!

The restaurant was actually a five-star establishment that catered to the rich, most notably to big industrial or shipping magnates and to high-level politicians and functionaries. The working-class jumpsuit of Tina got her a snobbish up and down look from the maitre d’ but she still managed to get a small table in a far corner of the dining room. Mentally sending the maitre d’ to a choice location, Tina took hold of the wine list first and nearly choked with indignation on seeing the prices. Even though she was now technically rich, she had always been rather frugal in her personal needs and tastes, like many of the spacers who lived often in minimalist conditions aboard their ships, which were effectively their home for them and their families. Most of the wine bottles in the list she was reviewing cost nearly as much as what a ship technician earned in a week!

Being well aware of the costs for shipping cargo across the Solar System, Tina still found the prices outrageous, until she thought about the state of the food industry, and of the general economy, on Earth. With much of its resources depleted and burdened with 8.2 billion inhabitants, the planet barely managed to feed its masses with its own food products and had in turn to import from space many of the raw materials its industries needed to manufacture goods. Plastics, hydrocarbons and chemicals were in particularly short supply on Earth, with the planet’s oil reserves having dried out in the 22nd Century. Pollution and rising sea levels due to climate warming had in turn cut on the amount of arable land available for agriculture. With every possible arable surface now exploited, the production of such luxuries as wine and alcohol had been limited by the planetary authorities, for good reasons. This had caused the prices for those products to jump to the stratosphere. Grape production in hydroponic gardens had helped provide a source of relatively cheap wine, but at the cost of quality. The truly good wines, those who would not be spat out by expert wine tasters of the 20th Century, were still being produced in places like Europe, South Africa and South America, but in limited quantities. Ironically, that put them out of reach of the pockets of most of the citizens of Earth, leaving only the few rich ones to enjoy them.

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Watched by an impassive waiter, who had noticed her shocked expression on seeing the prices, Tina finally chose a bottle of French red Bordeaux that cost the niggardly sum of 640 credits, or five days-worth of her past salary as a ship pilot. Next, she explored the menu, with its prices that would have made the wine list proud, and ordered a Kobe steak imported from Japan, followed by a platter of varied pieces of French cheese. When she was finally served, the meal proved a memorable experience to Tina. Standard ship food was healthy, balanced…and rather bland. Most spices were very expensive, while the meat and fish produced in space farms somewhat lacked the full taste of the original product. Chewing pieces of Kobe steak washed down with red Bordeaux wine made Tina close her eyes with delight. The platter of cheese, accompanied by the rest of her wine bottle, was nearly as good. She finally ended her meal with a shot of French cognac. With the maitre d’ looking like he expected to have to get her arrested for grand theft, Tina asked for the bill. She actually managed to keep a straight face on reading the bill, which amounted to a whopping 2,185 credits. Making a show of patting her various pockets under the severe eyes of the maitre d’, Tina finally took out her new personalized debit card, the one linked to her ship’s account, and presented it to the maitre d’. The latter then paled on examining it: it had the black and silver color of the type of debit card good for withdrawals of more than one million credits at a time. Turning red with embarrassment, he ran the card in his electronic reader, offering the unit to Tina so she could add a tip and sign on it with her thumbprint. After a short hesitation, Tina decided not to be mean and left a 400 credits tip, getting the maitre d’ to bow to her while proffering his thanks. Tina finally got up from her table and left the restaurant, feeling like a million credits. Once outside, she could not help break out laughing.

15:49 (Universal Time)

Bridge of the MSS KOSTROMA

Docking Station number Four

Orbital terminal of the Callisto Prime Spaceport Patricia O’Neil, the sensors and communications technician on duty on the bridge of the KOSTROMA, raised her head long enough to speak to Frida Skarsgard, the second pilot of the ship.

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“Frida, Tina’s runabout is on approach. She should be aboard in about four minutes.”

“Did she say anything about what is going to happen to the ship, now that Bill is dead?” Asked Frida, a beautiful young woman of 27 years with reddish-brown hair.

Patricia, an Irish red-head with green eyes, shook her head. Since the sudden death of Bill Forster two weeks ago, the crew of the KOSTROMA had been worrying about its future, not knowing if the ship would be sold and, if yes, to whom. Bill Forster, apart from being a good man, had also been a fair, caring boss for the 123 women and 89

men of the crew. His space savvy had kept the ship intact through many tight spots and his business acumen and many contacts had kept the contracts coming. With him gone, it would be hard to find as good a boss and owner. A few minutes later, after the small craft piloted by Tina Forster had entered one of the secondary craft hangars of the ship, the voice of Tina came on the ship’s intercom.

“Attention all hands! Attention all hands! All crewmembers except those presently on cargo and passenger transfer operations, plus one bridge duty personnel, are to assemble in the main crew lounge immediately. I repeat: All crewmembers except those presently on cargo and passenger transfer operations, plus one bridge duty personnel, are to assemble in the main crew lounge immediately.”

“I will stay here, Frida.” Volunteered Patricia. “There is no real need for you here at docking stations.”

“Thanks, Pat!” Said the pilot, rising from her padded chair and heading quickly to one of the lifts. Calling a cabin and jumping in it as soon as the doors slid open, Frida Skarsgard pushed the button for the crew facilities’ level and waited impatiently as the cabin started going down. A few seconds later and four levels down, she exited the cabin and immediately met a number of other crewmembers that were pouring out of other lifts. None spoke, continuing instead on their way to the main crew lounge. More than one face reflected worry, which she could understand. To her disappointment, Tina Forster was nowhere in sight when she entered the lounge. She was still looking around when Tina finally appeared, coming from the elevators and with a large box in her hands. She seemed in good humor, something that reassured a bit Frida, and made her way to the center of the lounge.

“Please, sit down, all of you!”

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After some shuffling around, Tina looked around at the close to two hundred persons now present, waiting to see if anybody else would show up. Finally, she spoke up in a strong but warm voice.

“You can relax, my friends: the ship is not going to be sold and you will all keep your present jobs. I went this morning to the reading of my uncle’s last will. There, I learned that Uncle Bill was bequeathing to me this ship and all its ground-based equipment and supplies, plus the bank account holding its operating funds. We will thus keep flying the KOSTROMA, with me as your captain and owner.” A concert of cheers and happy screams greeted that announcement, cutting her off for a moment before she could speak again.

“From what the notary told me, my uncle had no outstanding debts to his name, thus he was able to give me the KOSTROMA with a clean slate and some operating funds to continue our business. I thought that such an outcome deserved a proper toast.

Winnie, get behind your bar and break out glasses for everyone! I have some good bottles with me to fill those glasses.”

Winnie Zambela, the black barmaid of the lounge who also acted as assistant purser, hurried behind her counter as Tina carried the box she had brought to the bar, putting it on the counter and opening it. Murmurs of surprise and wonderment went around when Tina took out of the box six bottles of fine French cognac that had to have cost a small fortune. She then went around the bar to go help Winnie pour shots of cognac, making sure that some of it would be left for those not present in the lounge. Once everybody was served, she raised her own glass high.

“To the memory of Bill Forster, a good man, a good boss and a good uncle. May he rest in peace!”

“MAY HE REST IN PEACE!” Replied the crowd in unison, before downing their shots of cognac. Tina shivered as the strong alcohol burned its way down her throat and exploded in her stomach, then looked at the crowd around her.

‘’That’s it for now, my friends. Return to your duties and pass the good words to those who could not come now. Piotr, I will want a word with you after this.’’

The ship’s purser, commercial agent and finance officer stood still while the others left the lounge, then approached Tina. At the age of 49, Piotr Romanski had a receding hairline that left him half bald, but was otherwise a strong, solid man of medium height with a round, sympathetic face and a small goatee. Piotr took out of a pocket of his business suit an electronic tablet as he stopped in front of Tina.

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‘’I believe that I know what you want to know from me, now that you are the new owner, Tina. While you were taking care of your uncle’s affairs, I took the liberty of booking a few cargo deliveries for our next run.’’

Tina smiled gently at Piotr, thanking her good fortune at having such a good commercial agent as the ethnic Russian. Much of the KOSTROMA’s good financial fortune was owed to the competence and dedication of Piotr Romanski…and to his numerous well-placed contacts.

‘’So, where are we heading next, Piotr?’’

‘’Titan! We will first pick up here at Callisto Prime ten empty bulk liquid tanks that belong to the Titan Chemicals Corporation, plus a few passengers and a number of cargo containers. It will not bring us much but it will at least cover our trip’s costs. Once in orbit around Titan, we will load up with twenty full bulk liquid tanks: eight of propane, six of acetylene, three of ammonia, one of liquid nitrogen and two of liquid air.’’

Tina nodded her head, pleased. Titan, the seat of the Saturn Governorate and the second biggest moon in the Solar System with a diameter of 5,151 kilometers, represented a fabulous reserve of hydrocarbons for the oil-depleted Earth. As such, the refining industries on Titan shipped regularly to Earth huge quantities of such hydrocarbons, destined to feed the various chemical and plastic industries there. That commerce was worth a fortune in terms of shipping fees, but only the largest cargo ships could handle such large quantities economically. Fortunately, the KOSTROMA was such a ship.

‘’So, we then do a straight run to Earth afterwards?’’

‘’No!’’ Answered Piotr, surprising Tina. ‘’Then, we go first to Vesta, to drop the tanks of liquid air and liquid nitrogen, along with some passengers and cargo containers.

Once at Vesta, we will pick up more cargo containers and passengers, plus about 121,000 tons of metal ingots and powders.’’

‘’Uh, is it really worth it to do such a stop in the Asteroid Belt, Piotr? It would be a lot more economical in terms of fuel if we did a simple straight run to Earth.’’

Piotr smiled and turned his tablet, so that Tina could look at it.

‘’It is, when those 121,000 tons of metal are actually worth over 141 billion credits, Tina.’’

‘’ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY-ONE BILLION CREDITS?!’’ Nearly screamed Tina, stunned. ‘’Are we picking up a mountain of gold, or what?’’

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‘’The next best things, actually.’’ Replied Piotr, proud of his little coup. ‘’We are going to pick up thousands of tons of processed Iridium, platinum, tungsten, titanium and copper in ingots or powder, to be shipped to Earth. The shipping fee for those metals alone will be worth a bit over four billion credits to us.’’

Tina made a wide grin at that last figure: the shipping fees for that metal alone represented closely the actual resale price she could ask for the KOSTROMA. After that cargo run, she would have more than enough funds in reserve to pay for a complete overhaul of her cargo ship while still being able to give a substantial bonus to her crew.

The implications of transporting such valuable cargo then made her grin dissipate.

‘’Uh, I hope that not too many people are knowledgeable about that transportation contract, Piotr. A number of ships have disappeared without a trace in the Asteroid Belt during the last few years.’’

‘’Do not worry, Tina: this contract was not publicly tendered and the Vesta Consortium has severely restricted the number of people in the know about this shipment. You do not believe these wild stories about supposed pirate ships roaming the Asteroid Belt, do you?’’

Tina was silent for a moment, processing a number of old pieces of news in her head.

She finally answered in a sober, cautious tone.

‘’Piotr, one of the ships that disappeared without a trace in the Asteroid Belt was the RISING STAR, which was under the command of another uncle of mine, Peter Forster. Uncle Peter was an old space dog and knew all the navigation hazards in and around the Asteroid Belt, while his ship was meticulously maintained. Yet, the RISING

STAR disappeared without a trace two years ago, without sending even a single distress signal. Subsequent searches couldn’t find a single piece of debris or a life pod and none of its crewmembers were ever seen again.’’

‘’So? It could have collided with a large asteroid and evaporated on impact.’’

‘’I don’t think so, Piotr. First, Uncle Peter was not the type to go around zipping at full acceleration in the middle of an asteroid field. Second, barely a few weeks after the disappearance of the RISING STAR, a large quantity of powdered iridium similar to part of its last cargo list was sold through a series of shady intermediaries to a metal foundry on Earth. The origin of that powdered iridium was never determined with certainty but I personally believe that pirates boarded my uncle’s ship and stole its cargo.’’

‘’And the ship and its crew?’’ Asked Piotr, still not believing these pirates stories.

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‘’I am afraid that those pirates would not let any witnesses of their crimes live, Piotr. As long as their existence is not proven, the Terran Customs ships will not actively search for those pirates. As for the RISING STAR itself, it was probably resold on the black market. You know how many ships roam the Asteroid Belt, some with rather flimsy identities.’’

Piotr nodded slowly his head, seeing her point. Literally thousands of ships of widely varying sizes and types went around the Asteroid Belt, a rich source of minerals of all kinds.

‘’Should I cancel that metals transportation contract, then?’’

‘’No! It will be risky business, but we cannot afford to take only safe contracts.

We will just have to be extra careful.’’

‘’And if pirates do actually try to board us, what then? The KOSTROMA is totally unarmed, apart from the light hand weapons of our ship’s security guards.’’

‘’I don’t know, Piotr. I will have to think of something, I suppose. Anyway, good job with those contracts, Piotr. We will leave for Saturn in two days, after loading those empty bulk liquid tanks.’’

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CHAPTER 2 – CARGO RUN

14:03 (Universal Time)

Friday, February 19, 2315

M.S.S. KOSTROMA

Orbital terminal of Titan Magnus Spaceport Low orbit of Titan (10th moon of Saturn)

‘’Tina, Denise reports that the loading of bulk liquids will be completed in about two hours. The loading of cargo containers and crates is already completed.’’

‘’Thanks, Ingrid.’’ Replied Tina to the sensors and communications specialist.

She then punched a button on one of the controls pads attached to her pilot’s chair, calling the ship’s hostess, Natalia Vasilyeva.

‘’Natalia, how is the passengers embarkation going?’’

The clear voice of the tall, sculptural blonde, answered from the level of the Promenade Deck, where the passengers entered the ship from the spaceport terminal through ship airlocks and boarding tubes.

‘’We have up to now greeted and led to their cabins a total of 306 passengers, Tina. We were told by terminal personnel to expect another 120 passengers due to arrive soon by shuttle from Enceladus and Dione.’’

‘’Good! On my part, I expect to be able to undock and depart for Vesta at 18:00.

We will retract the boarding tubes at 17:30.’’

‘’Understood,

Tina.’’

Cutting the line, Tina then looked at the large screens giving a view of the outside to the bridge crew. The Saturn System was the jewel of the Outer Solar System, for many reasons. There was of course Saturn itself, with its majestic ring system that made it one of the most stunning sights of the Solar System. Apart of being beautiful, the giant gas planet was also a plentiful source of helium, ammonia and hydrogen deuterium, the latter an important ingredient of the cryogenic isotopic fuel used by all interplanetary ships. The cryogenic fuel production facility on the tiny moon of Prometheus, deep inside the rings of Saturn, was in fact one of only five such facilities in the whole Solar System, making it a primordial asset. Six other moons of Saturn, all with diameters 16

larger than 400 kilometers and composed half of water ice and half of rocks, made ideal places for subsurface hydroponic farms, dairy farms and cattle ranches. Their combined food production capacity more than made the Saturn System self-sufficient in foodstuff, at least of the basic kind, while leaving a sizeable quantity available for export. The dairy farms on Enceladus were in fact the largest producers of dairy products in the Outer Solar System. Two hundred refrigerated containers now loaded aboard the KOSTROMA were filled with such dairy products destined for Vesta and the population of the Asteroid Belt. Finally, there was Titan, the second largest moon in the Solar System and, with a diameter of 5,151 kilometers, larger than the Moon, Pluto or Mercury. Its dense atmosphere of nitrogen, ethane and methane, its surface lakes of liquid ethane and methane and its outer crust of water and ammonia ice made Titan a treasure of hydrocarbons and other chemicals, all in great demand on Earth and the rest of the Solar System. As the industrial center of the Saturn System, Titan was home to over 26 million people, mostly employed by its chemicals industry. Life on Titan, with its thick orange-brown atmospheric haze and its frigid surface, was however far from idyllic and was made bearable only by simulating Earth conditions and views inside cities buried deep under the surface ice. Those who could afford or had occasions to spend some weeks off Titan did so gratefully, even though a direct one-way trip to Earth typically took five weeks or more. Passenger liners, built for speed, long range and passenger capacity, could do such a trip in less than three weeks and handled the bulk of the passenger traffic in the Solar System, but charged hefty prices for a passage.

Cargo ships with some passenger facilities, like the KOSTROMA, took care of those who could not afford a liner ticket but could accept a longer trip. Such travelers were typically families relocating to a new world to get jobs, government functionaries being transferred and students heading for years of studies on Earth or returning home. Because of that particular composition of travelers, 1,200 of the 1,260 passenger cabins of various sizes on the KOSTROMA were economy class, which was fine with Tina. While the ship’s facilities were good enough to render even long trips comfortable, she had no desires to cater to crowds of upper class snobs. Her primary interest was cargo transportation, a trade much more lucrative than mass passenger transport and one also much more important in her opinion to the future of humankind than simple space tourism.

Leaving the ship’s navigator, Dana Durning, in charge of the bridge, Tina left her pilot’s chair and took an elevator cabin ride down to the Promenade Deck, 110 meters 17

below the bridge level. There, Tina walked towards the outer promenade and its access airlocks. A key part of the ship, the outer promenade was a six meter-wide, fifteen meter-high-ceiling avenue forming a closed ring 160 meters in diameter, with commercial shops along the inner side and large armored windows giving a view of space along the outer side. Facing the armored doors of the main access airlock on the promenade were reception counters where Natalia Vasilyeva and her assistants were greeting passengers and sorting them out before leading them to their respective cabins.

Reinforcing Natalia’s small crew for this occasion were the eight sex workers of the ship’s sex club ‘JUPITER’, one of the small commercial enterprises and boutiques that rented space aboard the KOSTROMA. Tina had laughed when her uncle had first shown her that practice, but she had quickly seen the wisdom of that move. The six young women and two men were physically attractive and were trained by trade to be pleasant and sociable with strangers. They also knew well the layout of the ship and could easily guide passengers around. In return, they and their manager, Madam Lee, got discounts to their rents aboard ship, which satisfied both parties. It also had the benefit of making unnecessary the hiring of more costly permanent personnel for what was essentially an activity that took only a very small part of the time of a cargo run.

Taking a discreet position near the reception counters, Tina watched with interest the variety of passengers coming aboard her ship in small groups. The Spacers populating the Outer Solar System were an eclectic lot indeed, but they had one common point: they were all professionally active, in contrast to the Earth’s masses of unemployed or inactive people whose lives were subsidized by government entitlements and pensions. This socio-economic aspect of Humanity was in fact starting to rend it apart in two, with Earth’s massive population of over eight billion people on one side living on a polluted, depleted planet. On the other side were less than 350 million Spacers dispersed around the Solar System, working hard to produce the mineral resources the Earth could no longer provide itself. Those Spacers lived in an inherently dangerous and inhospitable environment which made adequate living and working facilities mandatory, simply to ensure survival. Building and maintaining such space facilities was very expensive and had at first been the burden solely of Earth’s population, when the space expansion of Humanity had started in the 22nd Century.

However, that was now a thing of the past, with the human space colonies now being self-sufficient or nearly so. The problem was that many on Earth still thought of the 18

Spacers as spoiled, high-living elitists prospering on the back of the majority. The Spacers shot back that the spoiled, high-living elitists were actually the few millions of bankers, industrialists, land owners, corporation executives and high-placed politicians living in their gated mansions and private islands on Earth, mostly isolated from a general population half formed of hard-working but lowly-paid menial and agricultural workers and half of unemployed people, those who had lost for good their jobs because of the general depletion of Earth’s resources. The big problem with those unemployed was that they could not be shipped ‘en masse’ to the Outer Solar System colonies: the housing and life support infrastructure for so many extra hundreds of millions simply did not exist.

As Tina reflected mentally on all this while leaning against a support pillar, a small boy maybe five years old ran suddenly away from his young mother, chasing after his soccer ball. The ball rolled towards Tina, prompting her to make a few quick steps to stop it with one foot. Grabbing the ball, Tina handed it with a smile to the Eurasian boy.

‘’Here is your ball, boy. You should remember that artificial gravity can sometimes play funny tricks with your ball.’’

‘’Uh, thank you, miss.’’ Said the boy in a timid voice. As he turned around to go back to his parents, Tina had a sudden idea and followed him. The boy went to a young Asian man and a Caucasian woman carrying an infant Eurasian girl, with the small family about to register at Natalia’s reception counter. Giving a discreet wink first to Natalia, Tina pointed the boy and his family.

‘’I could guide this family once registered, Miss Vasilyeva, if it could help.’’

Natalia, an intelligent and quick-witted woman, smiled and nodded her head.

‘’Your offer is welcomed, Tina. Registering them will take only a minute.’’

After finishing to process the group of nine teenage students heading to Earth for university studies that had been at the counter, Natalia invited the Eurasian family to come forward. She then took the identity cards and boarding passes presented by the Asian man. The latter spoke in a polite tone tainted by the nervousness typical of first time space travelers.

‘’Good day, miss. I am Kenji Kurozawa and I am heading with my family to Vesta. Here is my wife Joan, my son Hiro and my little daughter Kimi. I took one-way tickets, as I am going to study advanced ore smelting techniques for a few months on Vesta.’’

19

‘’Welcome aboard, Mister Kurozawa.’’ Said Natalia before holding down in succession the electronic identity cards of the family against an electronic reading panel, copying the data on the cards to the ship’s computer records. She next selected a specific cabin for the family, with her computer then producing three suitably coded electronic entry cards. Natalia clipped a long holding ribbon loop to each card before handing them to the man, woman and small boy of the family.

‘’Here are your key cards, Mister Kurozawa. I counsel that you wear them around your necks, so that you have them handy at all times. You have Cabin 12-D-08.’’

Natalia then produced a number of small printed pamphlets, distributing them to the Kurozawas.

‘’Here are as well a simplified map of the ship, a list of instructions to be followed in case of an emergency and a list of the facilities and services available on board. All passengers are to attend a short briefing at 17:45 in the ship’s auditorium, just prior to departure. If you have no questions at this time, Specialist Tina Forster will now guide you to your cabin. Feel free to pick her knowledge of the ship if you wish so.’’

‘’Mister Kurozawa, if you will follow me with your family.’’ Said Tina, taking over from Natalia. She then led the Kurozawas, who were in turn leading an anti-gravity chariot carrying their luggage, down the main promenade. In this, Tina was following a long established practice meant to introduce new passengers to the commercial concessions installed on the ship and thus help their businesses. Having fun playing her role of guide, Tina described the various shops and facilities as they followed the closed loop of the promenade, lined on both sides by potted plants and small trees to make the surroundings more pleasant.

‘’We are presently on the ship’s Promenade Deck, which houses the various commercial concessions present on the KOSTROMA. All those facilities will of course be pleased to serve your needs or wishes. While your tickets cover the cost of your meals, which are provided by the ship’s cafeterias, a number of small restaurants and service counters offer at reasonable prices a variety of specialty foods to those who want to vary their diet. We are presently passing in front of the ‘SWEET TOOTH’ candy store and of the ‘ENCELADUS SWIRL’ ice cream parlor.’’

Tina noted with amusement that young Hiro’s head snapped immediately towards the two stores with obvious interest, prompting his mother to preempt him.

‘’Later, Hiro, later!’’

20

‘’Next, we have the ‘HOUSTON GRILL’, a Texan counter serving grilled meats and hamburgers, the ‘LONDON KIPPER’, a traditional British fish and chips counter, and the ‘SUSHI BELT’, a sushi counter. We also have a Middle-East grill, the ‘HOUSE OF

KEBABS’, a noodle counter…’’

They went by four more small restaurants and crossed a wide intersection leading to another main airlock before the Kurozawas slowed down at the sight of an establishment’s façade decorated with flashy neon signs.

‘’A sex club, here on a cargo ship?’’ Asked Kenji Kurozawa, incredulous. ‘’I would have expected this, and all those other shops, on a liner, not on a cargo ship.’’

‘’Well, let’s say that the previous owner of the ship had some very personal ideas about how to attract clientele.’’ Replied Tina with a malicious grin. ‘’To his credit, I have to say that the KOSTROMA is rated highly by the passengers who booked passage with us in the past. In fact, passengers in the middle to low income bracket love traveling on the KOSTROMA. Most mixed cargo/passenger ships have no such facilities like this shopping promenade, while they charge no less than us for cabins. As for liner ships, they charge at least four times more for a cabin than us.’’

‘’It is true that the price we paid for our cabin was very reasonable, miss.’’ Said Joan Kurozawa. ‘’How do you manage to keep your prices so low, in fact?’’

‘’Actually,’’ said Tina in a serious tone, ‘’we make most of our revenues from the cargo we carry, Misses Kurozawa, and by a long shot. We can thus afford to keep the prices for our cabins low, which in turn endears us to low budget travelers.’’

‘’A sensible policy indeed and one we will certainly not criticize, miss.’’

The group took ten more minutes to tour the other shops and facilities on the promenade before heading down a main hallway towards the core central axis of the ship and its banks of elevators. Little Hiro was by now all excited by the facilities he had seen and would have run back to the promenade’s playground if not for being restrained by his parents. Taking a lift and going up three levels to Deck 12, Tina then guided the little family to one of the ship’s 320 economy-class two-bedroom cabins. Opening the sliding access door of the cabin for the Kurozawas, Tina let them enter first in the small lounge of the cabin. Kenji Kurozawa looked around at the comfortable furniture, which included sofas, a large audio-visual entertainment unit and a bar counter with refrigerator, and nodded his head with satisfaction as Tina spoke.

21

‘’This is the lounge of your cabin. The bedrooms are past this curtain door to your left. You may want to leave your anti-gravity chariot here and carry later by hand your luggage: the hallway forms a ninety degree corner and would be a bit tight for the chariot.’’

Taking the lead again, Tina pulled open the curtain door leading to the bedrooms and walked in a short hallway. She showed the Kurozawas another curtain door to the left.

‘’This is the door of the bathroom, which includes a full-size bathtub. Next will be the children’s bedroom.’’

The latter room, while small, was carefully designed and contained two double bunk beds, plus a work desk, a chair and two storage closets. The beds had as well large drawers at the bottom. Letting her passengers examine for a moment that room, Tina then went to the nearby main bedroom, which was as large and well furnished as one would expect of a good hotel room on Earth. Tina walked past the large double bed and opened what looked like a sort of small storage unit, unfolding and deploying a padded baby crib with its textile mesh cage. She then smiled to Joan Kurozawa.

‘’If you prefer to have your adorable little girl sleep in your room, I believe this crib would be large enough for her, Misses Kurozawa.’’

‘’This is all very well designed.’’ Said Joan, checking the crib for its sturdiness and padding. ‘’We didn’t expect such a nice cabin for the price we paid. If the food at the ship’s cafeteria is on the same level, this trip will be quite enjoyable.’’

‘’Our cafeteria may not serve luxury gourmet food, but I believe that you will find the quality and variety most adequate. I…’’

Tina’s wrist communicator then buzzed, interrupting her. Excusing herself with the Kurozawas for a moment, she then opened the lid cover of her communicator, activating it and lighting the small display screen inside the lid. The head of Ingrid Holtz appeared, her expression serious.

‘’Yes,

Ingrid?’’

‘’Sorry to bother you, Tina, but I have an urgent call for you from Mister John Volpe, of the Jovian Shipping Lines.’’

‘’Uh, give me a few seconds before transferring me, Ingrid.’’

Tina then smiled apologetically to the Kurozawas.

‘’I am sorry to have to leave you like this, but duty calls.’’

‘’Go ahead, miss.’’ Said good-naturedly Kenji Kurozawa. ‘’You were of great help. We will manage from here.’’

22

‘’Thank you, sir. Have a good trip, you and your family.’’

Leaving the cabin in a few quick steps, Tina looked back at her communicator once in the main hallway.

‘’Go ahead, Ingrid: transfer the call.’’

The head and torso of a man in his forties wearing a good suit soon replaced the image of the blond specialist. Ingrid knew well John Volpe, as the man was the Vice-president for space operations of the Jovian Shipping Lines, which provided the KOSTROMA with the majority of its transportation contracts. It was thus good policy to be polite with him.

John Volpe was anyway a decent, reasonable man.

‘’Mister Volpe, what can I do for you today?’’

Volpe made a forced grin.

‘’Potentially a lot, Tina. I just got a big headache handed to me and you and your ship are the only ones who can help solve my new problem.’’

‘’I’m all ears, Mister Volpe.’’ Replied Tina, bracing herself for trouble.

14:58 (Universal Time)

Space liner M.S.S. APOLLO

Orbital terminal, Titan Magnus Spaceport

Zara Varanian exploded with anger as her impresario and manager meekly stood in front of her after delivering the bad news to her in her luxurious cabin.

‘’WHAT DO YOU MEAN, OUR SHIP IS BROKEN? HOW THE HELL AM I SUPPOSED TO GET BACK TO EARTH IN TIME FOR MY BIG TOUR?’’

Leon Steinberg made an apologetic smile at his mercurial star client: Zara Varanian, as well as being recognized as one of the most popular singers in the whole Solar System, was known to be a diva with a difficult character and with little patience for whatever obstacles she found on her path. One had once said that she was about as unstable as nitroglycerine, which was actually close to the truth.

‘’Uh, I spoke directly with the ship’s captain and he told me that his main engine has suffered a major engineering breakdown that will force him to go to a repair yard for many weeks. He however told me that an alternate ship is docked to this terminal and is ready to take us to Earth.’’

23

The diva, a small, thin woman in her late twenties with a sensual body, pretty face and intense black eyes, calmed herself somewhat at those last words.

‘’That’s better! And what is the name of that passenger liner?’’

‘’The ship is called the KOSTROMA. It is actually a cargo ship.’’

‘’WHAT?! DO THESE IDIOTS EXPECT ME TO PITCH A TENT IN SOME

DIRTY CARGO HOLD? I’M GOING TO SUE THEIR ASSES OFF FOR THIS!’’

‘’Please, calm down, Zara. The Jovian Lines assured me that this cargo ship actually has quite decent passenger facilities. It is also supposed to be a fairly speedy ship, as cargo ships go. We should suffer only three days of delay compared to our original planned date of arrival on Earth. We can still live with that delay and conduct your tour on time.’’

‘’And there isn’t any other, better alternative than that cargo ship?’’

Steinberg shook his head at once.

‘’I have gone over the arrival and departure schedules with the terminal’s traffic control center. No other ship will be available to go to Earth for another three weeks.

Worse, the first ships then are a collection of cargo ships with only minimal facilities for passengers, all in economy class. The next real liner available for a ride to Earth won’t come here for another five weeks.’’

‘’Five weeks? Why so long?’’

‘’Because of the distance, Zara.’’ Explained patiently the manager. At least she had not screamed…this time. ‘’Saturn is over one billion kilometers from Earth. Even with all the ships traveling in space today, the Solar System is a huge place. That and the fact that passenger ships constitute only a very small part of the space traffic. I assure you that this is the best alternative we have, Zara.’’

‘’Alright, we will transfer our things on that…what’s the name again?’’

‘’The KOSTROMA. I will arrange for our transportation to that ship right away.’’

‘’Good! If I am not satisfied with that ship, though, I will still sue the Jovian Lines for all they got.’’

16:18 (Universal Time)

Docking Station Number Four

Orbital terminal of Titan Magnus Spaceport As her air limousine made its way down the long pressurized structure supporting eight of the docking stations of the orbital terminal, Zara Varanian couldn’t help be 24

impressed by the enormous size of the behemoth she was supposed to embark on. In comparison, the passenger ship APOLLO, her initial ride, was nearly a toy. Just one of the twenty or so pods hooked to the flanks of the KOSTROMA was nearly as big as the APOLLO itself. Her wonder however turned into alarm when she saw the dense stream of containers, crates, vehicles and persons entering the ship via multiple access tubes.

‘’Leon, you better tell me that you reserved already the best cabin on board for me. Look at all these people going in!’’

Steinberg had a quick look from his seat besides Zara and smiled to her, apparently unconcerned.

‘’Do not worry, my dear. I was told that the KOSTROMA had ample room for all the passengers on the APOLLO. Even more, the reserves of fine foodstuff and alcohol stored aboard the APOLLO are also being transferred aboard the KOSTROMA. Miss Wang, the liaison person from the Jovian Shipping Lines, assured me that we will be as comfortable aboard the KOSTROMA as aboard the APOLLO.’’

‘’Humph! Maybe they are not total incompetents after all.’’ Conceded Zara.

Another nine minutes and the air limousine was able to enter the cargo ship through one of the communications tubes that led to a sort of combination of garage and storage space. Two young women, one impeccably dressed in a female business suit and the other wearing a simple red Spacer’s work coverall, greeted Zara when she stepped out of her limousine. The woman in business suit, an Oriental, bowed her head in salute at Zara.

‘’Miss Varanian, I am Miri Wang, sent by the Jovian Shipping Lines to ensure that your trip is most satisfactory to you. Welcome aboard the KOSTROMA.’’

The other woman seemed annoyed a bit at hearing Wang greet Zara aboard and presented her right hand in a very plebeian way in the diva’s eyes.

‘’Welcome aboard my ship, Miss Varanian. I am Tina Forster, captain, first pilot and owner of the KOSTROMA.’’

Despite her social prejudices, Zara did not miss the part about Forster being the owner of such a huge and thus expensive ship and shook her hand briefly.

‘’Thank you, Captain. I am told that your ship is quite fast for a cargo ship.’’

‘’It is, miss, although there are some safety limits I can’t ignore when at full load.

Be advised that we will have to make a brief stop at Vesta, in the Asteroid Belt, to pick up a cargo of refined metals on our way to Earth. I however intend to keep my engines 25

at near maximum performance during our trip in order to keep you and the other passengers of the APOLLO near your original schedule.’’

‘’A stop in Vesta? Is that really necessary, Captain?’’

‘’It is, Miss Varanian. That load of metals is by itself worth a lot more than my whole ship and is important to sustain the industries on Earth.’’

‘’Oh?! I will take your word for it, then. I suppose that you have cabins ready for me and my entourage?’’

‘’Effectively, Miss Varanian. Once your luggage is taken out of your limousine, I will personally guide you to your cabin, while Miss Wang will take care of your assistants.’’

‘’Thank you, Captain.’’ Said Zara before turning towards the driver of her limousine and to a big, beefy man in a dark suit. ‘’Karl, Devin, you may start unload our luggage from the limousine.’’

The two men nodded their heads and opened the trunk of the vehicle, while a crewman of the KOSTROMA brought forward three small anti-gravity chariots. As the men started emptying the limousine, taking out a bewildering quantity of suitcases and travel bags, Tina’s sharp eyes caught on something. Approaching the beefy man, she patted his shoulder, making him stop his work as he looked at her with curiosity.

‘’Yes,

miss?’’

‘’I see that you are armed. I suppose that you have a weapon carrying permit?’’

‘’Of course, miss! I am one of the bodyguards for Miss Varanian. Do you want to see my carrying permit?’’

‘’That won’t be necessary: I believe you. I however want to see the ammunition in your pistol.’’

Intrigued, the bodyguard still obliged her, taking out his pistol from his shoulder holster and removing its ammunition clip, handing the latter to Tina. She took one look at the bullet at the top of the clip and frowned.

‘’This is an armor-piercing bullet. It is good at piercing body armor but is also able to puncture a wall or viewing port of my ship and thus cause a catastrophic explosive decompression. Do you have low-penetration, frangible bullets, mister?’’

‘’Uh, no, miss.’’

‘’Then, go see later my chief of security, Mister Morrison, and get some frangible ammunition from him. I will not allow you to carry around my ship a weapon with armor-26

piercing rounds. Keep your weapon unloaded until you can get some new ammunition.

The same goes for the other bodyguards of Miss Varanian.’’

The bodyguard hesitated, looking briefly at his employer. Leon Steinberg took on himself to give him an order.

‘’Do as she said, Devin. Karl, unload your pistol as well.’’

The bodyguard and the driver complied at once, making Tina nod in satisfaction.

‘’Thank you for your comprehension, gentlemen. By the way, you may be interested to know that there is a fully equipped pistol firing range on my ship.’’

‘’A firing range? On a ship?’’ Said Steinberg, truly surprised. Tina smiled to him.

‘’A small one but one with a range of thirty meters and five firing lanes. My ship’s security guards do need to practice their pistol shooting regularly after all, and we spend most of our time in space.’’

‘’Decidedly, your ship seems to be full of surprises, Captain.’’

‘’It is the sixth biggest ship in terms of mass in the Solar System, mister. There is thus ample room aboard for many things that would not fit even on big passenger liners like the APOLLO. I will be more than happy to give you and Miss Varanian a tour of my ship tomorrow, once we are on our way.’’

‘’I will be looking forward to it, Captain.’’

Tina then stepped away from the limousine, letting the driver and bodyguard finish unloading the vehicle.

Four minutes later, and with all three chariots full to capacity and the limousine moved to its storage spot, the group followed Tina to one of the cargo lifts running along the central axis shaft of the ship. The sixteen persons and three chariots easily fit inside the big cargo lift, made to accommodate five meter-long short cargo containers. Tina then made the lift rise to Level 15, where the cabins reserved for Zara Varanian and her troupe were. Once out of the lift, the group split in two, with Miri Wang escorting most of Varanian’s employees and assistants towards their respective cabins. Tina stayed with the diva, her dressing lady and her executive secretary, leading them to one of the few business-class cabins on the KOSTROMA. Stopping finally in front of a sliding door, Tina opened it by using her access card, which opened all the doors on her ship, then invited Varanian in.

‘’Your new home for three weeks on the KOSTROMA, Miss Varanian. I hope that you will be satisfied.’’

27

Fully expecting to be disappointed, Zara stepped inside a spacious lounge and looked around her. The first surprise was the size of the room itself, which even had a dining corner at one end with a table for four persons. The lounge also featured a bar corner and a huge plasma display unit faced by comfortable sofas. The lounge in her cabin aboard the APOLLO had been significantly smaller than this one. Tina then went to a door in one corner, opening it and revealing a small bedroom with a double bunk bed and one single bed.

‘’This bedroom will accommodate your two assistants, Miss Varanian. It has its own complete bathroom and entertainment unit. We will see next your bedroom.’’

Crossing the length of the lounge, Tina opened a door at the end, closely followed by a curious Zara. The latter actually smiled with satisfaction on seeing the big bedroom and its attached walk-in closet and luxurious bathroom, complete with a large whirlpool bath.

‘’Your ship keeps surprising me, miss. This is as good and certainly as spacious as any first-class cabin I have ever seen on a liner.’’

‘’Thank you, Miss Varanian. For supper, the cafeterias are on Level Ten. There is a separate dining room for business-class passengers there. There are also a few small fast food counters on the Promenade Deck, on Level Nine. Those counters, like the other shops on the Promenade Deck, are however commercial concessions and you will have to pay for your meals there, contrary to the cafeterias. You will find a number of information pamphlets on the ship’s services and facilities on your bedside table. I will now leave you to let you install yourself. Have a good evening, miss.’’

‘’You too, Captain.’’

Once Tina was gone, Zara gave a few orders to her two female assistants, making them unpack her numerous bags and suspending or putting away their content in the walk-in closet and in the chest of drawers of her bedroom. In the meantime, she examined with interest the few pamphlets she found on her bedside table. That was when she realized the true size and volume of the KOSTROMA. As large and spacious as the decks she had seen up to now were, the passengers cabins and attached facilities represented actually less than ten percent of the internal volume of the ship.

And that didn’t include the volume of the various cargo pods that could be attached to the ship and that represented most of its cargo capacity. One piece of information then made her open her eyes wide and suck air in. Activating her wrist watch/communicator, she frantically called her manager, who answered after two buzzes.

28

‘’Yes,

Zara?’’

‘’Leon, they have an auditorium aboard this ship, a 3,200-seat auditorium! We could throw a few shows aboard during our trip. It could be good practice for us, apart from helping us pay for our trip.’’

‘’An auditorium? That is certainly something worth looking after. I will go have a look at it after I’m unpacked and report to you after. What cabin are you in?’’

Zara examined quickly the access card given to her by Tina Foster before replying.

‘’I am in cabin 15-A-01. And you?’’

‘’I’m in cabin 15-B-06. When are you going to have supper?’’

‘’I will go to the business-class cafeteria on Level Ten at six thirty.’’

‘’Good! I will see you then.’’

About one hour before the agreed supper time with Leon Steinberg, Zara, having showered and changed, decided to tour some of the facilities of the ship with her executive secretary. Being intensely curious about it, she first went to the ship’s auditorium. While the furnishing of that huge hall was rather austere to her taste, the acoustics proved adequate, like the facilities for the performers in the back of the large stage. Now more decided than ever to throw a performance on the KOSTROMA, Zara went next to have a quick look at the business-class cafeteria, which was already open for supper. She used that occasion to book in advance a table in a corner that would provide her some intimacy, then advised Leon of that by wrist communicator. With half an hour still to spare, Zara then went down to the Promenade Deck and toured quickly its boutiques and counters. The sight of the sex club JUPITER did attract an amused smirk on her face but, when she looked at the pictures of the club’s ‘performers’ near the front entrance, she couldn’t help feel some interest towards one of the male dancers, named simply ‘Marcel’ on the advertising. The man, apart from being built like an Adonis, obviously had Mediterranean blood in his veins, something that attracted Zara.

Discreetly noting mentally the operating hours of the sex club, the diva then continued her tour of the promenade.

As Zara Varanian was completing her exploration of the Promenade Deck, Tina Forster was taking place in her command chair on the bridge of the KOSTROMA. Her first business was to call in succession Denise Lonsdale, the ship’s cargomaster, and Natalia Vasilyeva, the head hostess, to confirm with them that the loading and 29

embarkation were completed. Once she had their thumbs up, Tina contacted Chief Engineer Rose Tillman, who answered from the main engineering control room.

‘’Main

engineering!’’

‘’This is Tina. Are you ready to fire up the main drive, Rose?’’

‘’Affirmative! Our three fusion generators are on and hot and our capacitor banks are fully loaded. As soon as we clear the terminal’s safety zone, I will be able to light up the main drive’s fusion chamber on your order.’’

‘’Excellent! I will contact now the terminal’s traffic control center to get clearance to undock. I will get back to you in a few minutes.’’

‘’I will be ready, Tina.’’

Cutting that line, Tina then called by radio the traffic control center of the orbital terminal, getting a nearly immediate response.

‘’Titan Magnus terminal, go ahead, KOSTROMA!’’

‘’Titan Magnus terminal from KOSTROMA, we are ready for space. You may disconnect and retract your communication tubes and docking clamps.’’

‘’Understood, KOSTROMA. Retracting communication tubes and clamps now.’’

Tina then watched one of the secondary viewing screens of her station, where she had a view of the communication tubes linking the KOSTROMA with the terminal. Those, along with the giant clamps that had secured the big ship to the terminal, unhooked from the KOSTROMA and slowly pulled away, leaving the cargo ship to float freely alongside the spaceport terminal.

‘’KOSTROMA, from Titan Magnus terminal, you are free to maneuver away.’’

‘’Thank you, Titan Magnus terminal.’’ Answered Tina before turning her head towards Dana Durning, the ship’s navigator. ‘’Light up our navigation lights, Dana!’’

‘’Navigation lights on! There are no craft or other ship in our departure path.’’

Tina nodded in understanding: with a present total mass of eleven million tons, the KOSTROMA would easily crush any craft or small ship unfortunate enough to be caught in its path, even at very low speed. Her next order went to Frida Skarsgard, who was now effectively first pilot of the ship.

‘’Frida, you may start pulling us away on gravity sails.’’

‘’Aye,

Captain!’’

Frida then tugged gently her control stick, sending computerized signals to the various gravity sail surfaces of the KOSTROMA. Under her commands, the gravity sails, in 30

essence a form of gravity mat that sent gravity waves against metal plates like wind blowing in a canvas sail, started moving the ship away from the terminal, slowly at first.

Gravity sail drives were common to all interplanetary ships and formed the main drives of many of the smaller classes of ships and of all auxiliary craft. While not as powerful as thermonuclear fusion drives, gravity sail drives had the advantage of being simple to operate and maintain, needed only a source of electrical power and were safe to operate near people or other craft. In comparison, a ship needed to back away by tens of kilometers from any space terminal or ship before it could fire up its fusion drive. If it didn’t do that, then the long, searing hot plume of plasma from a fusion drive could burn away or even melt any craft or ship caught in its exhaust. The gravity sails of the KOSTROMA were only powerful enough to impart to the ship, when at full load, an acceleration of less than two meters per second square, making it look slow and ponderous. Right now, accelerating away from the space terminal at one quarter gravity under gravity sails, the KOSTROMA took a full twenty minutes before it was distant enough to safely fire its main drive. At that point, Tina contacted again the main engineering control room via intercom.

‘’Captain to engineering: you may light up the main fusion drive now. Keep it at five percent power and neutral thrust at first.’’

‘’Understood,

Captain.’’

‘’Frida, align the ship on our calculated path to Vesta. Be ready to apply power.’’

‘’Understood,

Tina.’’

Down in main engineering, Chief Engineer Rose Tillman, a 21-year veteran of space flying, eyed critically the readouts from her instruments as she was about to light up the main fusion chamber of the ship’s thermonuclear drive. A push on a large red button then started the computerized startup sequence. Electrical brakes were applied to half of the massive flywheel capacitors sitting on the deck under that of the main fusion chamber, extracting from them a massive electrical surge of eight gigawatts. That surge in turn fed a huge bank of multimegawatt lasers, which then sent dozens of powerful laser beams through optical conduits that converged on the main fusion chamber. Those laser beams, entering the fusion chamber at carefully calculated angles, hit a tiny pill of deuterium-tritium, vaporizing it while at the same time compressing the gasses under tremendous pressure and temperature. The deuterium-tritium then ignited into thermonuclear fire, which lit up the fine mist of deuterium-tritium 31

fuel pre-injected in the fusion chamber. The tremendous surge of thermonuclear plasma filled the fusion chamber, with its excess plasma leaving via a magnet-lined conduit.

When functioning as a source of boost for the ship, that excess plasma would travel to the four fuel injection chambers of the fusion drive and ignite in turn more fuel, producing millions of tons of thrust. Right now, however, that hot plasma simply vented away in space from both the forward and aft nozzles of the KOSTROMA’s main drive, producing no effective thrust. Simply closing either the forward or aft plasma acceleration conduits would then produce thrust in one direction, pushing the cargo ship in the desired direction or braking its flight. Rose Tillman watched this critical process for a few seconds before calling back the bridge.

‘’Captain, we have a sustained fusion reaction in the main drive chamber. We can apply power any time you want now.’’

‘’Thank you, Rose.’’ Answered Tina before turning her head towards Frida Skarsgard. ‘’Engage main drive at sixty percent power and initiate our pre-calculated flight plan.’’

‘’Main drive at sixty percent! Engaging on pre-calculated course.’’

The main engines of the KOSTROMA then erupted, producing a staggering ten million tons of thrust and creating an exhaust plume of hot plasma tens of kilometers long.

However, instead of increasing its absolute orbiting speed relative to the Sun, the cargo ship actually started to decrease its speed, in order to come down from the gravity well of Saturn towards the orbit of Vesta. Helped by the efficiency of its fusion drive and its large fuel tanks, the KOSTROMA then went on decelerating for hours, to match the orbital speed of Vesta, in the Main Asteroid Belt.

21:42 (Universal Time)

Entrance lobby of the JUPITER sex club

Mark Cisco exchanged a satisfied grin from a distance with Madam Lee, the owner of the club: business was good tonight, no small thanks to all the extra passengers from the liner APOLLO. Many of those extra passengers were also obviously financially more comfortable than the average passenger the KOSTROMA was accustomed to carry. That meant bigger tips and a more generous consumption of drinks, the latter being the biggest part of the revenues of the club for Madam Lee.

Presently, a group of seven wealthy businessmen were having a rowdy time in one 32

corner, enjoying a table dance from a voluptuous blonde, Vera Lutjens, while a no less enthusiastic group of four young women were admiring from very close the anatomy of the beefy Rick Westmore. With glass partitions between sections that could be polarized to become one-way mirrors, the action could become in fact about as rowdy as a customer wished. The only rule, which Mark Cisco was tasked to enforce if need be, was that consent had to be mutual and between adults. For even more intimate action, small private cabins could be rented in the back of the club, not only for customer-performer encounters but also for customer-on-customer action if two persons got attracted to each other during their visit at the club. The social mores of the 24th Century, at least among Spacers, were tolerant enough to make this quite frequent, actually. Things were a bit trickier on Earth, were what was permitted and tolerated varied greatly depending on where you were.

The club was already nearly at full capacity when Mark saw a young woman and a big, muscular man enter the club and approach his reception counter. He hid a smile when he recognized the woman and acted as if he had no clue that such a celebrity as Zara Varanian was visiting the club: he had learned long ago how such celebrities often wished to go around anonymously during their free time.

‘’Welcome to the JUPITER, miss, mister. We have separate sections for male and female shows. Where would you like to take a table?’’

‘’In the male dancers’ section, please.’’ Answered Zara while discreetly admiring the impressive physique of the bouncer. Mark Cisco nodded and led her and her bodyguard towards the smaller section of the club, finally presenting them an empty table with chairs. Mark didn’t miss the fact that Zara’s male companion then chose to sit at another nearby table rather than at Zara’s side and gave the bodyguard good marks for his professional judgment. He then returned to his post after being given a tip by Zara. A bare-chested waiter with the physique of an Adonis quickly showed up at Zara’s table to take her order as she was eyeing the male hunk dancing and stripping on the stage a few meters away.

‘’Good evening, miss. My name is Marcel. What would you like to drink, miss?’’

Zara repressed a smile on recognizing the hunk that had attracted her attention on the façade’s advertising a few hours ago.

‘’I will have a red vermouth on ice, please.’’

‘’Right away, miss.’’

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Marcel then quickly took the order of her bodyguard, who went for a glass of mineral water, before walking away towards the bar of the establishment. He was back a mere minute later with the drinks. Zara smiled to him as she paid for both glasses.

‘’Could I ask for a table dance, Marcel?’’

‘’Of course, miss! Let me just finish my tour of the tables and I will be with you.’’

Back at the entrance lobby of the club, Mark Cisco soon greeted two new customers, black men in suits. One was huge and powerful, while the other was of medium built, was in his early twenties and wore a very expensive suit and a gold wrist communicator. This is decidedly a night for VIPs and their bodyguards, thought Mark before leading the duo into the female dancers’ section and giving them a table.

Contrary to the bodyguard of Zara Varanian, the black bodyguard sat with his charge at the same table. While obviously well-to-do, the younger man didn’t tip Mark and dismissed him with a negligent gesture of one hand, as if he was chasing away an annoying dog. Mark left without a word, less than impressed by this particular customer.

Less than forty minutes later, a blinking red light and a discreet alarm on Mark’s security computer screen made his head snap. He swore quietly to himself when he saw that the alarm came from the special wrist communicator of one of the club’s dancers, Joan Ferguson. Furthermore, it came from the area of the table occupied by the young black snob. Without wasting time to check the view from the relevant security camera, Mark launched himself in a quick walking stride, charging towards the table of concern. A panicked cry from Joan then made him accelerate to a run in the semi-darkness of the club.

‘’LET ME GO!’’

Mark arrived near the table to find Joan being forced to kneel in front of the young black snob by the man’s bodyguard, obviously to make her give a fellatio. The black bodyguard didn’t react fast enough to Mark, who sent him down to the floor in pain with a kick to his testicles. Mark then grabbed solidly the young snob’s left shoulder, pushing him in his chair while glaring at him.

‘’Let her go, now!’’

The young man, obviously half-drunk already, glared back.

‘’Do you know who you are messing with? Why all this fuss for this ill-trained whore?’’

34

Mark did not respond immediately, first helping Joan to get up.

‘’Go see Madam Lee and tell her what happened to you, Joan.’’

‘’Su…sure, Mark.’’ Said the dancer in a shaken voice before fleeing. Mark then looked back at the snob he was still holding.

‘’Customers are to respect our employees, mister. Sex acts are given only with mutual consent. I will now have to ask you to leave the club without further ado.’’

As soon as Mark released his hold, the young man shot up from his chair, furious.

‘’I AM NELSON ZEMBELO, SON OF THE GOVERNOR OF AFRICA! HOW

DARE YOU THROW ME OUT?’’

A movement behind him and a warning shout from a nearby customer then alerted Mark.

‘’BEHIND

YOU!’’

Mark turned around in time to face a bull-like charge by the snob’s bodyguard, who was still grimacing with pain. Quickly pivoting and stepping aside, Mark used the man’s momentum against him, grabbing hold of his collar and forcing him to circle him before throwing him head-first against the nearest wall with a resounding ‘THUMP’. As the bodyguard slumped to the floor, unconscious, Mark activated his wrist communicator, having had enough of these two customers.

‘’Hello, ship security? This is Mark Cisco, at the JUPITER sex club. I have here a case of assault against an employee by a customer. I suspect that the latter is armed.

Send a team as quickly as you can!’’

The customer who had warned him, a tall and thin man in his thirties wearing the kind of simple and informal coverall favored by Spacers, joined him besides the knocked out bodyguard.

‘’If you need a witness, mister, I am all yours.’’

‘’Thank you, sir. That will be most appreciated.’’

The young snob eyed with anger Mark, then the other customer.

‘’You damn Spacers! You always gang up on us Terrans when you can. Wait till my father learns about this: you will then be sorry for this.’’

‘’What is this idiot talking about?’’ Asked the volunteer witness, surprised and confused. Mark answered while eyeing Nelson Zembelo grimly.

‘’I suppose that you never went to Earth, mister?’’

‘’Uh, no. Why?’’

‘’Because, then you would have known that many Terrans resent our supposed life of high-tech luxury. They think that they are still subsidizing us, when in fact it is the 35

other way around now. Unfortunately, some on Earth find it convenient to perpetuate that myth among their citizens, mostly to help hide the fact that they are the ones who are exploiting the masses.’’

The helping customer shook his head in disbelief.

‘’A life of luxury… I have yet to breathe fresh atmospheric air and never swam in a real lake or sea. As for luxuries, this visit to Vesta is the first real vacation for me and my family in four years.’’

‘’That is the story of most Spacers, mister. Too bad that so many Terrans think otherwise.’’

The arrival at a run of Bill Morrison, the KOSTROMA’s head of security, and of two of his security guards, interrupted their chat. Morrison, a big and tough man in his early forties, had a stun pistol in his right hand as he looked at the scene around the table.

‘’Alright, what happened here?’’

The young snob immediately pointed an angry finger at Mark Cisco.

‘’THIS THUG ATTACKED MY BODYGUARD, THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED!’’

‘’Bullshit!’’ Replied Mark. ‘’He had his bodyguard forcing down Joan on her knees to make her give him a fellatio against her will. I had to knock out his bodyguard when he charged me. Be careful: he may be armed.’’

‘’The receptionist is telling the truth, sir.’’ Volunteered the helping customer. ‘’I saw everything and so did my two friends at that table.’’

Morrison’s eyes focused on Zembelo as he pointed the unconscious bodyguard to one of his guards.

‘’Leo, find out if that man is armed. If yes, confiscate his weapon and then cuff him. You, mister, sit down!’’

Probably because he was too drunk to realize how much in trouble he was, Nelson Zembelo stayed up, shouting in protest.

‘’DON’T GIVE ME ORDERS: I’M THE SON OF THE GOVERNOR OF AFRICA.’’

The response of Morrison was to step forward and brutally push the young man down on his chair.

‘’I said ‘SIT’! Now, show me your identity card!’’

When Zembelo didn’t move to take out his card, glaring instead at him, Morrison frowned.

‘’Very well! You want to play that kind of game? Then we will find your card by searching you in the detention block. Ahmed, cuff him!’’

36

Zembelo then made yet another mistake and tried to take a swing at the head of security. The latter jumped back in time to avoid the fist directed at his face, then pointed his stun gun at the young man and pressed the trigger. Propelled by a small explosive powder charge to a muzzle velocity of 120 meters per second, the blunt nose, rubber-tipped twenty millimeter caliber slug slammed in Zembelo’s ribs, flattening on impact while also delivering a 50,000 volts discharge through a small needle in its tip.

The young snob went down like a rag doll with an audible ‘HUMPF’, his muscles convulsing. Ahmed Jibril then stepped around him and turned him on his belly and cuffed him. As Morrison was shaking his head at Zembelo’s stupidity, his other guard, Leo Sanchez, showed him a heavy caliber pistol, along with the magazine extracted from it.

‘’That bodyguard was effectively armed, boss: he had a ten millimeter caliber SIG-4000 automatic pistol, loaded with armor-piercing bullets.’’

‘’This is getting better and better.’’ Groaned Morrison before looking at Mark Cisco. ‘’Where is Joan, so that I can take a statement from her?’’

‘’She’s with Madam Lee, Mister Morrison. She was quite shaken by this incident.

I suppose that you will need a statement from me as well?’’

‘’Yes, and from you and your two friends as well, mister.’’ Replied the head of security, looking at the customer who had warned Mark. ‘’My men will take care of bringing those two bozos to the detention block.’’

‘’Uh, could you send me the names and pictures of those two men later, so that I can place them on the club’s black list?’’