Today's Reading

Central was the aptly named ring station at the center of the settlement, surrounded by a halo many hundreds of times its diameter of hollowed-out rocks, scavenged dead ships, and a haphazard collection of building-sized tin cans. All that space trash was tied together with hundreds of crisscrossing cables known collectively as the lines and kept stable by a small army of autorockets that nudged and pulled as needed. First chance he got, Fergus was going to rent himself a one-man personal flyer that could get around freely between the lines.

Their thin sliver of sunlight vanished as the car crept into the shadow of a smaller rock. Half a heartbeat later, the already-dim lights in the car flickered, and there was a thud as if something had collided with the car.

The old woman twisted in her seat to look out the window. Pulling a handheld out of a pouch in her exosuit, she tapped at it, then held it up to her face. "It's me," she said. "May be trouble on the line to Mezzanine Rock. No idea, maybe nothing. Stay sharp, and keep everyone in. I'll check back in when I get to the end of the line."

She slipped the handheld back into her exosuit, her bony hand emerging again with a small tool. By his count, it took her fewer than seven seconds to pop the in-transit safety lock on her harness and float free.

"Um . . ." Fergus asked. "What's going on?"

Before she could answer, the air handlers gave one last coughing wheeze and went silent as the lights in the car quit for good, leaving them both in pitch darkness.

He heard a few snaps, then jumped as something lightly touched his arm. "You wearing gloves?" the old woman asked from somewhere directly in front of him.

"Yes?" he said.

"Then hold out your hand."

She really did remind him enough of his maimeó that it was automatic to comply. A squiggle of glowing green goo appeared in the palm of his glove.

"Rub your hands together, but try not to get it anywhere other than the palms," the old woman said. "Don't lick it or touch your eyes. Either one will make you wish you were dead."

"I'll try to remember," he said. He held his hands up, turning them from side to side. It was a limited but surprisingly adequate light source. He could just make out the outlines of her face by the light. "That's useful. Thank you."

"Don't thank me yet," she said. "It also makes you an easier target in the dark. If you have to hide, close your hands into fists."

"Are we in danger?" But I just got here, he thought. Even my luck doesn't work that fast.

She floated over to the instrument panel at the front of the car, one hand gripping the panel as the other worked at the controls. "Dead, I'm afraid," she said after a few moments, then launched herself back toward the center of the car.

"A mechanical fault?" he asked.

"Backup instrumentation is down. It's a self-contained, separately powered system," she said. "Proximity detectors and external sensors are offline, as are all the security cameras. Best guess is an EMP mine, probably slapped on the car as it left Blackcans. We're dead midline and blind. Unless I'm mistaken, you're in the wrong place at the wrong time."

"I often am," Fergus said. He cupped one hand, used the light to look at his own seat harness lock.

The old woman was back in the center of the car and was going over her crates one by one, unhooking the webbing and pushing it aside. "It's also possible that hub control has deliberately shut down the system because the Asiig are doing a flyby," she said. She opened a panel on each crate, did something within that he couldn't see, then closed it again. "You know about the Asiig?"

"Not much, and more than enough," Fergus said, remembering amorphous childhood nightmares. It hadn't occurred to him until just now who Cernee's nearest neighbors across the Gap were. "They do flybys?"

"Once or twice a standard," she said.

Out here, a single solar orbit took nearly fourteen Earth years. It was his good luck that most—though not all—human settlements stuck to old home time references.

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