Prologue

After nearly two weeks in transit from the Prosperity colony along Jupiter’s solar orbit, Interplanetary Resources Incorporated Flight PRO-2715 was now one hundred thousand kilometers outward on final approach to Ceres Station. Its two-hour deceleration burn was completed with plenty of fuel to spare, bringing the freighter cruising into position to enter the dwarf planet’s main commercial shipping lane. Thousands of ships passed through this corridor every week—including two or three dozen other Alexander-class cargo freighters like this one—carrying anything from resources like helium-3 gas and refined ore to immigrants, tourists and business travelers alike.

To an observer and even to most of the passengers, there was no sign that the ship was anything out of the ordinary. Any observer who thought that, however, would be very mistaken: while the cargo was a standard shipment of iron-nickel ore mined from Jupiter’s Trojan asteroid node, this flight’s unique nature had more to do with a few of its passengers than its shipment.

Seated in an impromptu first-class cabin were three people. The first was a steely, older woman in a well-pressed pantsuit, her graying hair pulled into a bun. A younger man sat across the room from her at a desk covered in glowing holo projections. He stared intently at a displayed document which floated about a foot in front of his face, then turned to the older woman.

“That was Ceres docking control, ma’am,” he said. “They said we’re about half an hour out, given all the freighter traffic. Too bad we can’t cut in line, huh?”

“Not much we can do about that, Reese,” she replied. “Remember, this isn’t exactly an official visit.”

“I know. It just makes me wonder what Director Langston has to hide. We’ve been on good enough terms with his people for the last couple years… I want to know what could’ve changed.”

“A lot changes when a League carrier comes knocking on your front door. Speaking of which, what’s the word on that carrier, Marick? Is it still docked?”

Leslie Marick, a woman who appeared older than Reese but still years away from the first woman’s gray hair, spoke up from a seat across the room.

“Not sure, ma’am,” she said. “I haven’t heard anything from our plants on the Station since this morning. You think we should hold off, maybe give it some more time before we pull in?”

“We can’t afford to wait,” replied the older woman. “Not if our intel from Mars is correct.”

With that, a black-suited man wearing an earpiece peeked down at her through the staircase from the cockpit above.

“Ambassador Andersen,” he said, “the captain has something he’d like you to see.”

“Now what could this be?” she said, her voice betraying mild frustration. She unbuckled her lap restraint and ascended the staircase into the cockpit as the door shut again behind them.

The cockpit’s interior was filled with bright red light from various indicators and readouts, in order to give the two men inside a view out the front windows without blinding them in the darkness that surrounded them. Even though docking and Hohmann transfer navigation processes were entirely automated, especially in a craft this massive, pilots still tended to trust their eyes over electronic displays whenever possible. The rough sphere of Ceres lay off in the distance, framed by a slim crescent of harsh, reflected sunlight.

“What’ve you got for me, Captain?” asked Andersen. The captain was a rough-looking man, like an old sailor. These kinds of jobs had always attracted the same kind of men, even though the venue for them had changed significantly.

“It’s a ship we’ve been tracking since we entered the Outer Belt Region an hour ago,” he said. “Looks like a little civvie model but when we picked it up, it was out pretty far out there for someone just going on a joyride.”

“You think it’s following us?” Andersen’s face barely registered concern. Memories of the Endurance Fourteen incident came back for a moment, reminding her that she’d been in these sorts of situations before. That one had been messier, what with the civilian casualties during the hostage rescue. However, this mission was different.

“It’s possible but not likely. We’ve been off Fleet comm channels the whole way, plus our tags are registered with Interplanetary Resources Incorporated.” The gruff captain turned to his copilot, a younger man who looked no less experienced. “What’s its distance now… Four, five hundred klicks?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied, “but if it comes any closer and isn’t just some rich guy out for a quick flight, we might be in for trouble.”

Andersen paused for a moment, looking to the information readouts. They didn’t tell her much of anything she could understand, though it didn’t stop her from trying.

“Just keep me posted, Captain,” she said, turning to retreat back to the cabin.

“Yes, Madam ambassador.” Before she could reach the door, however, the copilot spoke up again.

“Look at this, Captain,” he said. “It’s picking up speed: four thousand kilometers. Thirty-nine hundred.”

In surprise, Andersen turned again to face the readout interface. In between the captain and copilot was a holo projection in the shape of a sphere, with their ship’s position in the very center. Around it floated smaller projections, each labeled with unique call sign identification tags. Other than the civilian ship the captain had been tracking, the next closest ship markers were registering at almost ten thousand kilometers inward to Ceres Station. These markers hardly moved, since the freighter had matched their entry speed for the final approach. Meanwhile, the civilian ship was coming in steadily faster towards the freighter.

“It’s really moving…” Andersen remarked.

“Thirty-seven hundred,” the copilot said. “They aren’t slowing down… What do you advise?”

“Are they on an impact trajectory?” the captain asked.

“Negative. If they keep going straight ahead, it looks like they’ll just miss us. Crazy bastards. It’s your call, Captain. Ditch him or stay on course?”

“I say we stay on course but get ready to put out a call on the station emergency frequency just in case. We can’t afford to look suspicious, or else we’re all done for.”

“Aye aye,” replied the copilot nervously. “Target is still approaching: thirty-five hundred kilometers. Damn, it’s quick! Thirty-four…” A harsh beeping noise pierced the tense attitude in the cockpit, followed by the rapid flashing of an indicator light on the sensor readout array. “Hold on. Shit! We’re under missile lock!”

“From that little civvie ship?” the captain asked incredulously.

“Take evasive action,” said Andersen. “Get us out of here!” Her left hand gripped the Captain’s chair back like a vice.

“I’m trying,” the captain replied, “but he’s coming in too hot! These tubs can’t steer worth a damn anyways.”

Meanwhile, the copilot was busy with the wireless.

“Mayday, mayday!” he called out as panic started to creep into his voice. “This is PRO Twenty-seven Fifteen, we are under missile lock by an unknown vessel! I repeat, we are under missile lock by an unknown vessel, bearing two hundred fifty-seven degrees above and behind our position, please respond! Mayday!”

All of Ambassador Helena Andersen’s training could not have prepared her for the end: only her multiple brushes with death in the line of duty had done that. Regardless, her calm acceptance of the situation surprised even herself.

“So this is it, then,” she said to no one in particular.

She watched as a pair of new indicators blinked to life on the holographic distance display. When the missiles impacted a moment later, the explosions came so quickly that no one on board had time to hear them reverberate through the hull before the ship was ripped apart, littering the Belt’s largest commercial shipping corridor with bodies and debris.

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