Going Through Customs

Chloe Smith

Illustration by Martin Hanford

‘Your problem,’ Nyera said, ‘is that you believe you should be able to trust people.’

Sally suppressed an eye-roll. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard that criticism from her second-in-command, chief engineer, and crew of one. She stayed focused on the notification that filled her screen. ‘Out here, you can’t not trust people. “Trust is the thin outer hull—’

‘—that protects us from the void”,’ Nyera finished for her. It was the first line of the Humanity Code. ‘Yeah, I’ve heard it said. But here we are, no boarding privileges, waiting for permission to deliver, and it’s our first pass through this station since their revolution last year….’

Sally knew Nyera’s skeptical expression: folded lips and narrow-eyed gaze. She could feel it directed at her. ‘I’m sure there’s a reason our standard procedure was interrupted.’

‘Oh, I’m sure there’s a reason.’

‘Quiet. I’m trying to make sense of this.’ Sally frowned, skimming paragraphs of text. ‘It’s probably just a hiccup. There’s some missing form or unchecked box. It’ll get resolved. They need our stock, and we want to get it to them—’

There was a ping from the airlock. ‘See – that’s our resupply. Looks like they trust us.’ She rolled out of her pilot’s couch.

‘Huh.’ Nyera was unconvinced. ‘Let’s see.’

This was Sally’s fourth circuit with the Nightingale 17, a delivery packet for Pharmasolar Medicine & Supplement, and she remembered Eunomia station as a typical asteroid mining set-up. Even with their new government, which seemed to specialize in posturing and producing layers of regulation, she didn’t think that much could have changed.

Her first impressions, once she’d clambered out of her ship’s airlock, made her think she’d been right. The port deck had the same insulation-paneled walls, low ceilings, and faint breeze of old air-recycling systems as dozens of other stations. It was shabby but functional, the sort of place Sally could imagine settling, once the Pharma gig had made her enough to bring Mom up the gravity well.

One thing that was different from past visits was the young woman with close-cropped black hair and a worried expression who stood behind the slider-pallet of replacement filters, vat starter cultures, and packaged food. Instead of their supplier’s uniform, she wore heavily used coveralls, stained with lubricants and spattered with burn marks.

‘Captain Sally Yu?’

‘That’s me. But you aren’t from Bahri’s Transit Wholesale,’ Sally said.

The delivery woman glanced down the corridor, shoulders hunched. This section of the port deck was quiet, with only a few passersby in the distance.

If this stranger was up to something, she wasn’t doing a very good job of posing a threat. Sally chose to lean on the woman’s discomfort, using her Captain’s voice.

‘Who are you and what do you want?’

‘I’m Kirin Hurst. Bahri’s guy owed me a favor.’

Sally was fairly sure that, whatever was going on, she didn’t want to touch it with a 10-meter probe. ‘And you wanted to deliver my groceries?’ She crossed her arms.

The woman finally met her eyes, gaze painfully intense. ‘I want you to sell me your drugs.’

Sally blinked at her. ‘What? We’re going to. That’s why we’re here.’

Kirin stepped closer. She spoke quietly. ‘The Marcus government won’t take your whole inventory. But you could sell it all—’

‘You can stop right now.’ Sally cut her off. ‘I’m a sales rep, not a smuggler. We’ve got a contract with this station,’ Even if it’s currently languishing in bureaucratic limbo. ‘And I mean to honor it.’ Kirin put out a hand in protest, and Sally took a step back, reaching for the access ladder. ‘Get out of here now, and I won’t report you to station security.’

‘What was that about?’ Nyera asked as Sally keyed the hatch closed, wishing she could give its hiss-and-click more finality. Sally missed almost nothing about life planetside, but slammable doors did help you make a point.


Nyera raised her eyebrows. ‘Easy, Captain.’

‘Sorry. It just makes me crazy. People who are only in it for themselves, and damn the rest – that’s what Earth is like. A billion desperate people pushing each other’s faces down into the dirt just to make their own space to breathe. Out here, where the margin of survival is so narrow, you’d think people would know better than to try to undercut each other. We’re all in this together.’

Nyera was shaking her head in half sympathy, half impatience. ‘Still with the trusting. You forget that the other thing keeping people alive in space is control, and most people would rather have that.’

Sally opened her mouth to continue ranting, but Nyera cut her off. ‘Speaking of control, we got another message from Customs Office while you were up top.’

‘Really?’ The relief Sally would have felt was undercut by the memory of Kirin Horst’s claims. ‘Let’s see if they’ve cleared us for delivery.’

Sally reread the tightly spaced paragraphs of the customs clearance note. The true import of the message was hidden under anodyne phrases like partial stock transfer award and acceptable risk, but its shape, once she had fully grasped it, was enough to make anger bubble under her breastbone.

She stabbed the message window closed and sent a live-connection request.

A baroque station governance seal filled her screen, but was quickly replaced by a man’s fleshy face perched on a high, military style collar.

He took his time staring down his nose at her, then asked, ‘How can I help you, Miss…?’

‘Captain Yu.’ Sally kept hold of her temper. As if her call request hadn’t included her ship and company identification. ‘Of the Nightingale 17, Pharmasolar delivery fleet. I believe there must have been some error.’ She added a ‘sir,’ as a conciliatory afterthought. ‘We didn’t get approved for a full delivery—and yet the same inventory cleared customs on our previous visit.’

The man sighed. ‘The mistakes of the previous government have no bearing on this office. Whatever bribery or underhand negotiation you engaged in before has no legal standing in the eyes of the current leadership.’ He frowned for a long moment, while Sally stared at him, struggling to forge persuasive contradictions out of outrage. ‘We have some key concerns with the range of products on offer. Some of your drugs have wide-ranging consequences.’

Point made, the official’s face relaxed into a smile you might see as regretful or smug, depending on whether you were feeling generous.

Sally wasn’t, but she had to try and move him. ‘If I might explain, sir…’

‘Mr. Secretary’ he corrected her. The smile widened. ‘Honorable Secretary Chief Hensen, Regulations Division.’

This was bullshit. Sally stiffened her shoulders and let her stare cool down to outer-hull temperatures. ‘If I might explain – the range of products in the Pharmasolar catalog is a set inventory, as per the Life Necessities Humanity Code. We sell what we have. Would you deny your station’s residents what they need to survive?’

‘To survive?’ Now he matched her glare for glare. ‘Have you ever seen a gollum child? An infant whose bones fragment under gravity when they try to stand, or, worse, one who never makes it to toddling because they’re born full of cancer? That’s what you make happen, feeding women lies about “pregnancy protection” drugs, making them think they’re safe, that they can justify the risks outside of a magnetosphere. Your drugs do that, Miss Yu. They make people think that there’s any responsible choice other than termination or going planetside.’

‘That’s ridiculous,’ Sally flamed back. ‘anti-rad and growth-stim supplements are generations beyond what they used to be. Gollum births are almost as rare now as congenital defects down a gravity well.’

‘Spare me the pitch.’ His righteous anger had cooled to impatience. ‘It’s not your place. Your company confirmed the modified sale via satellite relay an hour ago. Your job is just to deliver our purchase and move on. Have a good day, Miss Yu.’

Sally put in another call, this time to the home office – but then paused before recording a message. It would take almost half an hour for her words to reach headquarters, and at least that time again for her to hear back about a decision that was, apparently, already made.

She stared at the console, a pit that felt suspiciously like betrayal deepening in her gut, before banging out of the cockpit to find Nyera in engineering.

‘The idiots running this station won’t buy our drugs.’

‘What?’ Nyera looked up from the diagnostic she was running with real shock in her eyes.

Sally forced herself to take a deep breath. ‘Well, not exactly. They only want a limited catalogue, not the full range. It turns out this new regime has positions on which meds should be available. And it looks like Pharma went ahead and bent the Humanity Code in order to get in bed with them.’

‘The Code’s not law,’ Nyera reminded her, ‘And if it was law, what authority could enforce it? We’re too scattered out here.’

The Code had always been about a shared acknowledgement of the narrow odds of human survival in the void of space. Station civilization required a high standard for ethical human interaction if the whole thing wasn’t going to collapse into anarchy and certain death. It was what Sally counted on, what made the long, far-flung journeys delivering sustaining medicines to distant mining colonies seem worthwhile.

‘What’s off the table?’ Nyera asked.

Sally looked at her. ‘What do you think? They don’t want breeders taking unacceptable risks.’ Nyera didn’t respond, and she went on, tone rising. ‘And this is just a start, you know. If companies start to negotiate inventories with buyers, to forget the Humanity Code and limit what they offer based on what any provincial asteroid warlord or fundamentalist sect thinks their people should want, then where will it end?’

‘It’s not that small a concession,’ Nyera said quietly. ‘I mean, space pregnancy is dangerous. I’ve never liked enabling it. And it’s not like there aren’t alternatives.’

‘Alternatives like the baby farms? You know I grew up on one of those, right?’ Sally’s outrage flared again. ‘My mother went back down to Earth to have me. She sold herself into indenture to do it. I grew up in a creche, and the only way she’ll ever get off that mudball is if I make enough up here to pay her off.’

‘At least you have bone density,’ Nyera pointed out, ‘And you can live down a gravity well, if you want to.’

Sally scoffed. ‘I’ve no desire to go back to Earth. I wouldn’t wish it on any spacer’s kid.’

Nyera’s silence was not agreement.

‘Look.’ Sally hesitated. ‘That’s not our only option. That woman that came by earlier. She wanted to buy our drugs herself. She knew, somehow, that station government wouldn’t take the whole inventory.’

The foldout screen in Nyera’s hands went dark as her fingers tightened around its edges. ‘And you told her to get lost, right?’

‘Yes…but now…. What if this is a way to get everything, all the medical support required, to the people who really need it?’

‘You’re out of your mind.’ Nyera said flatly. ‘I’m going to act like I understand how you can even contemplate doing something like that, because I know how much you care, but that’s straight crazy.’

‘It’s just wrong to control people by limiting their options,’ Sally said.

‘And what would the options be for us, then?’ Nyera asked. ‘Do we claim we ‘lost’ some inventory? Start faking invoices and cooking our books? Take the money and run? Do you want to lose your job?’

Sally pushed off the bulkhead she had been leaning against. She was practically humming with nervous energy. ‘I don’t know. I just— We’ve got boarding clearance now. I need to talk to that girl again.’

‘You’re making a mistake.’ Nyera’s expression was wooden.

‘I’m sorry; I just have to see what this means for her, for people on this station.’ Sally didn’t look back as she ducked out of the room. ‘Trust me.’

The clerk at Bahri’s Wholesale was suspicious, but admitted that Kirin was a friend of his, and gave up her address after some persuasion. After some wrong turns, Sally found the low-level, dormitory-style rental, and hit the bell code. The woman appeared after a few moments, looking ready for sleep in worn pajama pants and a shirt that said ‘Eunomia Systems Engineers’ in faded letters.

Kirin’s face changed as soon as she saw Sally. Her hand flashed out and she grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her inside.

The bunkspace was just that, cramped and narrow, with barely enough room for two people to stand. Kirin leaned back against one wall, leaving Sally to take the opposite, so they could face each other in the dim light.

Kirin’s expression was still a mixture of hopeful and desperate, and she hesitated so long that Sally finally asked bluntly, ‘Did you come to me for pregnancy drugs?’

Kirin swallowed. Her eyes flicked away, and then back to Sally’s. ‘Yes.’

‘Why?’ Sally found she needed this woman’s story, the assurance that Kirin wasn’t just looking to turn privileged access into source of power.

‘The Marcus Government has proscribed local childbearing,’ Kirin said.

‘I’d gathered that. Why do you want access?’ Sally pressed.

Kirin sighed. ‘Are you from Earth?’ Sally nodded. ‘Then you know what it’s like. My parents had to save for years to send me up the elevator. Labour is cheap on Earth’ – she grimaced, acknowledging the unintended pun—‘and space is limited. Not like up here.’.

‘Getting up to the void was the best thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t even mind washing up on this half-sized bit of nowhere. But now Marcus and his people are flexing their authority and deciding that the only risks anyone – especially women – should take, are the ones they choose for us.

‘Their solution is to ship anyone who happens to get pregnant back to Earth, to grow the starving masses, whether she wants to go or not. I can’t do that. I won’t.’

Sally had to force herself to ask the next painful question.

‘Do you really want to have a baby?’ Preventative and termination drugs, at least, weren’t proscribed yet.

Kirin looked down, then up again, clearly daring Sally’s judgement. ‘Yes.’

Sally felt Nyera’s arguments rise up in her throat. ‘It’s not just your life, you know. The risks….’

Kirin glared. ‘Will I be better able to protect my child downwell, when I have no money and no future?’

‘Supposing you get the right meds,’ Sally pursued the logical problem, ‘how are you going to carry that off here, if it’s against the rules? It’s not like no one’s going to notice.’

Kirin shrugged. ‘I can get a transfer to a larger rock—one of the asteroids with better spin gravity and OB medical facilities. I have a few months to figure that out. What I don’t have’ – the urgency in her tone sharpened – ’is the option to be off meds. The dispensary won’t sell pregnancy supplements anymore, unless you register your departure date and Earth-bound flight number. I got some leftovers on the black market, but their stash is almost out. I know I can’t do this without the drug protections. I feel like I have to choose between killing my child and destroying my life.’ Her voice cracked.

Sally tried to think while Kirin scrubbed at her face. ‘You know people in the black market?’ She asked, ‘Might they be interested in some more resale opportunities?’

‘What—oh, yes!’ Kirin’s eyes widened.

Sally leaned forward. ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. I have a station’s worth of inventory. You tell me that there’s a market for that here, even if station government won’t take it. I don’t imagine you’re the only woman in this situation. Make the connection, and we can sell to more than just you.’

Kirin stared at her a moment longer before suddenly bursting into tears and falling damply on Sally’s neck. ‘Thank you!’

Sally could only respond awkwardly, with incoherent soothing noises and hesitant pats.

‘It’ll be alright,’ she told the other woman, hoping that was true. ‘But you’ve got to get it together now. We have things to do.’

Kirin promised to bring overtures from her contacts to the Nightingale 17 as soon as possible. Sally tried to feel like they had a good plan. Her nervous energy channelled into quick strides along the corridors, back to her ship. Nyera was going to be a problem. How could she make the other woman understand that—

She was so caught up in the conundrum that it took her longer than it should have, once she entered the port deck, to realise what was going on.

‘What the hell?’ Sally crossed the last few yards at a run, bouncing awkwardly in the low-gee of station spin and almost ramming herself into one of the float pallets, piled high with crates bearing the Pharmasolar logo, that was now clustered around the Nightingale 17’s access hatch. ‘What’s going on here?’

A man in another variety of station uniform turned to frown at her. ‘Move along, ma’am. This is government business.’

‘It’s also my business! This is my ship.’ Sally pushed off the crates and straightened so her captain’s insignia was visible. ‘What are you doing here? I thought delivery wasn’t scheduled until—’ she tried to remember the exact timestamp on the clearance note, ‘0800?’

The man jerked his head towards the hatch, where another pallet was emerging, along with the head of a younger station worker. ‘We got a message that delivery had been sped up. Apparently Pharmasolar had a powerful need to move their goods, and some concern about vulnerability here at the port.’ The man shrugged. ‘Port security’s not my business, but the higher-ups took the complaint, and sent us to collect.’

Sally’s ears were suddenly ringing. ‘You got a request? From this ship?’

The man nodded. ‘I would have thought that was you, ma’am.’

‘It’s Captain,’ Sally snarled at him. ‘You need to stop this right now. Put the crate back. This is—’ she searched for an explanation that would move them. ‘It’s not procedure—’

He stared at her. ‘But why? Delivery’s already accepted.’

‘What’s going on?’ The other worker finally finished moving his load onto the port deck and joined them.

‘There’s some kind of confusion here.’ His senior companion’s expression telegraphed ‘this woman’s crazy,’ loudly enough that Sally felt a stab of self-consciousness, even through the heat of her anger. He turned back to her. ‘I’m very sorry m— Captain, but this is a misunderstanding you have to sort out with your people. Everything’s been confirmed as received.’ He waved a handheld vaguely in her direction.

‘Yes, they’re done here.’

Nyera stood at the top of the hatch. She suffered Sally’s look without reaction.

The two workers exchanged glances, and then the younger jumped to the work of loading the delivery onto a larger corridor-cart. ‘Well,’ the other said, glancing between the two women, ‘we’ll be on our way, then.’ He didn’t quite roll his eyes as he turned away.

Sally held her peace until they were back in the privacy of the Nightingale, but only just.

‘How could you?’ She demanded.

‘I’m sorry; how could I do what?’ Nyera’s façade was cracking. ‘My job? Keep you from dragging us both into criminal dealings, to defend something I don’t even believe in? You talk about giving people power over their destinies. Well, you don’t get to hijack mine.’ She turned and began securing loose cargo ties as if each one needed its neck wrung.

Sally’s anger dissipated in a rush of cold reality. You could work with someone for years, know them like family, but still find the differences of belief vast between you.

‘That girl who came to buy drugs from us – she’s pregnant. I’m going to do it for her, and others like her. Your option is to help me or leave.’

Nyera’s hands stopped moving, but she didn’t look up. Sally continued, ‘You don’t have to be part of it, but I’m not going to stop.’ The words felt like they were slicing through her on their way out.

She took a deep breath. ‘Unless you call this station’s overeager security forces and turn me in.’

Now Nyera’s eyes met hers. Their fury was incandescent. Sally swallowed. Waited. Silence.

Nyera finally released the strap she’d been strangling, and tucked it back in place with the care owed a live bomb. She straightened. Then she walked directly to the cargo hatch release. Sally had to back up a step to let her pass. Nyera didn’t acknowledge her presence, or turn to look back as she climbed the ladder.

The hatch snicked closed behind her, leaving Sally gasping in the sudden emptiness of the ship.

The new silence onboard did not make the uncertainties of Sally’s plan easier to bear – had Nyera reported her? – and worrying only partly distracted her from the wounds of loss and betrayal. By the time the access ‘lock pinged, she was ready to open it and welcome in the goons here to arrest her.

Instead, it was Kirin, with a message that further complicated things. She pressed her handheld into Sally’s grip as soon as she was onboard.

If we can trust you to provide what you say, we may have a deal. Passing items without import approval through the main port docks places us at a significant risk, though. Customs inspection and station patrol presence are very heavy right now. Consider other options for transfer locations. We can meet you above 70°.

‘Above 70°?’ Sally asked.

‘There are EVA access ‘locks for the station engineering and spindrive maintenance at the poles, along with ports that give onto storage areas,’ Kirin said. ‘I know it won’t be easy to reach, but that’s the best way to get bulk materials stationside without anyone seeing them.’ Her gaze turned painfully hopeful. ‘You can make that work, right?’

Sally grimaced. ‘I’m not sure.’ This was the sort of messy logistical puzzle Nyera excelled at solving. If only. ‘Help yourself to some tea while I think on it.’ She led Kirin into the Nightingale’s pocket-sized mess, and then pulled out her own handheld.

The external distance was no more than 50km. It would only be a matter of repositioning the Nightingale, if it were possible to fire their ship’s engine and withdraw from dock without Docking and Traffic Authority tracking their movements.

Sally massaged the bridge of her nose. ‘Kirin?’

‘Yes?’ The woman had both hands clasped around her slurp-cup of tea, and she held its warmth tight against her breastbone. Her eyes were wide and hopeful. Damn. Sally swallowed. ‘I’m afraid this isn’t going to work.’

She had expected more tears, but Kirin’s expression hardened instead. ‘Are you saying it’s impossible?’

Sally hesitated. ‘Well – no, it’s just, the only way I can figure it would take two people…’

Kirin frowned. ‘So? You have me.’

‘What? No! This requires EVA work.’ Sally watched Kirin’s eyes widen – but then the woman squared her shoulders and nodded. ‘That’s okay.’

Sally gaped at her. ‘Do you even understand what that means? With suitwork, there’s nothing else between you and hard vacuum. You could have the best drugs on the market and that’d still be a bad idea.’

Kirin gave a tight little nod. ‘I know. And I understand the risks. Solar activity is low right now, and we’re in aphelion.’

‘Solar activity is unpredictable,’ Sally corrected, ‘Unless you have paid access to the monitor channels – we don’t. You really shouldn’t risk it. Pharmasolar only guarantees health post-CME exposure with a hefty dose of emergency meds, and that’s from ideal-condition, lab-based results.’ Sally typed furiously on her handheld, before shoving it at Kirin. ‘Look. This jaunt would take two expert EVA navigators 45 minutes, minimum. Coronal mass ejections average – not high, average – 3 Sv in 45 minutes. That’s a worry even if you aren’t a developing foetus. The longer you’re out there, the more likely the odds of a flare will catch up with you. And that’s just the radiation. I won’t even get started on the risks associated with micro gee. I thought the whole reason you came to me was so you could have the best chance at a healthy child. How can you say that and then act like it’s just yourself you’re putting in danger?’

‘Because it’s not just about me.’ Kirin looked down, then back at Sally. ‘I wouldn’t have believed someone telling me I would do this, but… when I was talking to the black-market people, they were so hopeful – you couldn’t tell from their message of course, they don’t trust you – but they are. The promise of access that can’t be cut off by Marcus or whoever comes after him, not just for pregnancy meds, but for everything. It’s freedom of choice, and safety without political conditions. It made me realise this deal would make a difference for more than just me. That needs to happen. It’s worth the risk.’

They took advantage of the lull in port activity during shift change: Eunomia was not a station with a lot of traffic, but even one nearby ship docking or undocking was more than enough risk for any unscheduled and covert extra-vehicular activity.

The only undelivered crates from the Eunomia supply were, like all Pharmasolar shipments, insulated to protect against incidental vacuum exposure, and bound together for easy transfer – or what would have been easy transfer if Sally and Nyera had been able to offload it normally. It was no more massive than a couple of people, but it measured an awkward metre and a half on a side. A single person in a suit equipped with standard maintenance thrusters could move it easily in a weightless environment, provided she started at a matching velocity with her point of destination.

However, the Nightingale was currently anchored to the widest point of a rock spinning fast enough that centripetal momentum was equivalent to a good third of a gee. Jettisoning the crate would, in effect, mean dropping in on a trajectory perpendicular to the asteroid, with enough force that a single suit’s thrusters could not counteract it. Even with two people, it would take careful work not to send anything, or anyone, falling into the depths of space.

Sally took Kirin twice over all the steps to avoid this as they moved the crate into a hull access lock. She started running through everything a third time as they suited up, but the woman interrupted her.

‘Captain Yee. I’ve done EVA work before. I’ve got this.’ Kirin’s arms crossed protectively over her midsection for a minute, though, before she caught herself, checked her seals, and picked up her helmet.

Sally felt a rock in her stomach. She wanted to forbid Kirin from taking this risk, or refuse to go through with it. She wanted to storm off of her ship and force Marcus to change his policy. She wanted to burn down to component atoms whichever exec high up in the Pharmasolar company structure had decided the Humanity Code no longer mattered. Instead, she looked away from Kirin and slid the crate forward until it was on the lip of the hatch. Then she put on her own helmet and checked her comm.

The in-helmet readouts came online, and Sally felt as if the radiation dosimeter, usually nothing more than one more stat blinking among her health and safety data points, had grown menacing and baleful in its significance. She tried to ignore it.

‘Can you hear me?’

‘Affirmative.’ Kirin’s voice was a trifle high, but she gave a thumbs up.

‘Good. Is the inner lock sealed?’


Sally double-checked her seals and toggled the hatch release. The vast darkness of space opened at their feet, and she stepped out into it.

She fell for a moment, then fired her thrusters, bringing herself into matching velocity with the hatch opening. Looking up, she saw Kirin positioning the crate at the edge of its tipping point, before she dropped out herself. Sally couldn’t help eying her dosimeter again as they both clipped tether lines to loops in the crate’s frame. It was flickering a stark 12 mGy – blowback from the Nightingale’s magnetic shielding. Even assuming that all translated straight to Sieverts, it was nothing beyond what normal anti-rads covered – for an adult, at least – but she felt her skin crawl inside her suit, nonetheless.

Together Sally and Kirin reached up to ease the crate the rest of the way out. Sally braced herself to fire her thrusters at max power. She could see Kirin mirroring her actions.

‘Ready?’ She asked.

‘On three,’ Kirin agreed.

‘One. Two. Three.’ They tipped the crate out.

There was a moment in which the outward force of the crate fought with their suits’ countering acceleration, and then their velocity stabilised. They hung below the ship, with the bulk of the asteroid curving away above them. Sally called up the overlay of their routes on her helmet screen, hoping Kirin was doing the same.

‘Alright,’ she told Kirin, ‘Push towards point B.’

Their motion was not nearly as efficient as Sally would have liked. Eunomia asteroid’s gravitational field didn’t exert enough force to be much help, and two people trying to independently coordinate suit thrusters to move a third and larger object, without the benefit of practice or previous shared experience, resulted in a lot of juking around and frantic course correction. It didn’t look as if they could make the rendezvous point in under an hour.

Sally could tell, from the frustrated grunts and hisses Kirin kept emitting, that the other woman knew how poorly they were doing. Sally resisted the urge to overfire her thrusters – accelerating in the wrong direction would be at best counterproductive, and at worst disastrous.

The dosimeter flashed suddenly brighter. 85 mGy. Kirin cursed. She must be watching it as well.

‘Course correct,’ Sally reminded her, and Kirin responded with a blast that pushed them 30 degrees off course. For a moment they were falling up/down towards the surface of the asteroid, before Sally’s frantic adjustments got them righted and realigned.

The dosimeter climbed 5 more points. Why the hell didn’t Pharmasolar subscribe to the miners’ solar monitor services? Sally wondered in half-hysterical irritation. They should have anticipated their employees’ need for advance warning about CMEs during unsanctioned thefts of company property.

She willed the blinking number to slow its climb. Maybe the solar activity would be minimal? Kirin was chanting, ‘Damn, damn, damn,‘ in a desperate whisper.

The port towers were still in sight. She could still call it. They could get back onboard in 15 minutes. Less, if they jettisoned the crate.

Suddenly, Nyera’s voice was on the comm, sharp and urgent. ‘Brake forward momentum. Hold Eunomia-relative position. I mean it. Stop now.’

‘What?’ Kirin gasped. ‘No!’

Beyond doubt and suspicion, Sally reacted to the fear in Nyera’s voice. Almost before she knew what she was doing, she had pushed herself around and thrown herself into conflict with the crate’s inertia yet again. She had to shout Kirin’s name before the other woman moved to follow her lead and the two of them managed to shift the crate’s velocity.

Sally looked back frantically for the lump of her ship. For another dissociative moment she was sure that Eunomia’s security officers, directed by Nyera and mounted in armed mechs, were about to come bursting out of the nearest ‘lock in angry pursuit.

Instead, she saw a single suited figure gliding towards them at speed.

With practised ease born of years of external maintenance jobs, Nyera flipped her body and decelerated to within a metre of Kirin. She reached out for the other woman in what Sally’s disoriented mind first saw as an awkward embrace of suits – but then she realised that Nyera had grabbed the tether’s carabiner from Kirin’s waist at the same time she slapped the magnetised key to the Nightingale’s inner ‘lock hatch onto the holding patch on Kirin’s suit shoulder. ‘Go back,’ she told Kirin. ‘There’s a secondary flare coming. A big one. The port and mine just broadcast an all-alert: a five-hour closure ‘til it passes.’

Sally couldn’t see faces within the mirrored protection of their helmets, but Kirin’s voice rang with incredulity. ‘What are you doing?’

Nyera’s figure raised her hands, gloved palms up. ‘I’m helping you. What does it look like? Now get back to the ship. Time matters.’

Kirin’s gasp was audible on the comm, and Sally couldn’t help closing her eyes for a moment. Emotion bloomed inside her like a supernova – relief, doubt, fear.

Then she shook it off. Responses could come later. ‘Kirin, you heard her. Get going.’

In the masking depth of her suit, there was no way to read body language, but Kirin’s ‘Affirmative’ was breathy and choked. She pushed herself away from them, back towards the port.

Sally couldn’t give in to the impulse to watch and see if Kirin got back safely. The dosimeter had stalled at 120 mGy, but time mattered for her and Nyera, too, even if they broke the crate open as soon as they got through the hatch and shot up a full dose of cell-repair treatment.

She turned back to the crate and began calling out the thrust directions to get it back on its path. Nyera mirrored her movements far more seamlessly than Kirin had, and soon they hit a rhythm, generating a steady arc of acceleration a few hundred metres off the irregular surface of the asteroid.

‘How did you know what we were doing?’ Sally finally asked.

‘I came back for my things just in time to see you and that girl dropping out the lock. I’m not a fool.’

‘I never thought you were,’ Sally said.

‘This doesn’t change anything,’ Nyera said as they flew on. ‘I still think this is wrong, and I’m still leaving when this is done. I just couldn’t let that girl do that to herself.’

There wasn’t anything Sally could say to that. She couldn’t do anything except keep directing their cargo forward, through the invisible and growing sea of radiation. ∎

Chloe Smith teaches middle school, moonlights as a proofreader for Locus and Fantasy magazines, and writes science fiction and fantasy stories whenever she can make the time. Her fiction has appeared in Metaphorosis, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California.

Martin Hanford lives in Ledbury and has been an illustrator for over 25 years, mainly sci-fi and fantasy, although he was once asked to draw a cow! As well as illustrations, Martin has produced numerous album covers and novel covers, and doesn’t get mistaken for the Where’s Wally guy too often.

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