Fiction: “Letting Go” (The Belt 2470)

++++ DATE 14.1.2470
++++ TIME 
15:01 Shipboard Time
Research ship Avempace, 10km Sun synchronous of 538 Friederike

Just let go.

Even through the gloves of his spacesuit, Nicholas Bouras could feel the cold of the metal hand grips on the outer door of the primary habitat ring’s peripheral airlock.

They were still talking to him through the radio in his headset. He had no idea what they were saying anymore; the voices had long since turned to static in his head, a counterpoint to the pounding rhythm of his own breathing. It was as if here at the end of his life, his brain simply refused to process the basics of human language, preferring instead the comforting banalities of his own internal human physiology.

The numbers on the other hand – the numbers Nicholas could see as if they were printing on the screen in front of him rather than unbidden on the black backdrop of his own mind: 0.135g, 15 hours, 1.553 rpm, and most importantly of all – 8.13 meters per second.

Nicholas had no idea how long he had been holding on. The muscles in his arms were burning. Without a magnetic clamp to hold him to the outer shell of the habitat ring rotating at 1.553 revolutions per minute producing the internal centrifugal gravity of the Europan Standard Gravity of 0.135g and an outer tangential velocity of 8.13 meters per second, when his grip failed him, he would be flung from the rim of the habitat ring, and without a tether, plus or minus 15 hours later when his suit ran out of oxygen, he was going to die.

Around him, the starfield of the Belt slowly spun around the edges of his vision. Tears stung unbidden in his eyes. He tried to blink them away, but they only gathered on the inside of his spacesuit’s visor making a messy mist.

I don’t want to die, Nicholas tried to say. Please don’t kill me. Not like this. But his mouth could not make the words.

His left shoulder spasmed as it dislocated. The pain shot through his body causing him to gasp involuntarily. The voices that had been talking to him through the radio in his headset had fallen quiet now, and he realized there was not going to be any rescue.

He let go.

++++ DATE 14.1.2470
++++ TIME 
9:21 Shipboard Time
Research ship Avempace, 10km Sun synchronous of 538 Friederike

“Captain, the computer has given us a registry on that armed frigate that’s been closing with us.” Nicholas was surprised his voice was so calm.

“And?” The Avempace’s captain was captain, chief life support engineer, backup hydroponics technician, and liaison to the research scientists that made up the bulk of the ship’s mostly-Union crew all rolled into one. On a research vessel such as the Avempace, such multiplicity of hats was standard; Nicholas himself had his own diverse share of hats. While the Avempace was flying a Vesta Compact flag of convenience, it was a polite fiction given both the financing of both ship and research team, though nobody had seemed to even notice when they had put into port at Vesta.

“She’s the Drake, captained by a Kissandra Tully. Uh, sorry, Captain, but her course plot is consistent with a trajectory from Concordia.”

The Avempace’s captain went very still at Nicholas’ words. She shook her head. “What on earth would they want with us? Concordia, so an illegal. Privateer or pirate, though, we’re a research ship, not a cargo freighter. We can’t possibly be worth all this trouble. They’ve been at our heels now for what, three days?”

Nicholas had no response. Then: “They’re accelerating, Captain. Hard.”

“Match velocity.”

“We can’t.”

“Very well.” The Avempace’s captain flipped on her mic. “Susan, we have a problem. Go to the cargo bay and start prepping it for jettisoning everything but the nutrient supplies and the reserve CO2 scrubbers.” She paused, listening to someone on the other end. She shook her head. “Yes. And no. And yes, I am quite aware of that. Shut up and do it anyways.” Flipping off her mic, she turned back to Nicholas. “Send them our surrender,” she said quietly.

++++ DATE 14.1.2470
++++ TIME 
13:55 Shipboard Time
Research ship Avempace, 10km Sun synchronous of 538 Friederike

The Avempace’s hull vibrated as the frigates matched velocity, magnetic clamps locking onto the primary habitat’s sleeve and the hull airlock.

“We could try a fast burn before they cycle the airlock,” Nicholas offered half-heartedly.

The captain shook her head. “They’d just blow the engines, and maybe even the habitat rings and take whatever is left from the wreckage. No, our best chance is to just give them what they want and let the home office decide how to write this off.”

“Should we go down to the airlock and meet them there?”

The captain quirked a humorless smile. “No, if I have to surrender to some wanna be pirate, I’m not going to do it floating in zero-g with my ass hanging in the wind.”

They waited in silence the long minutes until the elevator chimed, the doors sliding open. Three figures in military-grade armored spacesuits spilled out, the leading two with flechette rifles. One covered the exit, the other the Nicholas and his own captain. The third figure reached up and touched her collar; the visor slid back, revealing a middle-aged woman who stepped forward, hands on hips as she shifted her gaze between the two of them.

“I expect by now you have run the Drake’s registry. I also expect your internal sensors have told you my people have seized engineering and life support.”

The Avempace’s captain pursed her lips. “Yes.”

“Then you know who I am, I must presume.”

“Captain Kissandra Tully, lately of Concordia, I expect.”

Kissandra chuckled. “I know, I really should pick up an eye patch.” Her eyes turned hard. “I assume you are going to be cooperative?”

The Avempace’s captain looked like she had tasted something bitter. “Do I have a choice?”

“Not a good one, true,” Kissandra conceded. “But you still technically have a choice.”

“We’ll cooperate.”

“Good. Then the first order of the day is I want everybody not on this deck in the cryotubes. I assume they are integrated into the ship’s escape pods, as standard for this class of ship?”

The Avempace’s captain’s eyes widened. “You’re scuttling the ship? But why?”

Kissandra didn’t say anything for a long moment. “Orders are orders. This will be better for your crew.”

The order given, the five of them stood in awkward silence while the Nicholas quietly passed on the order to abandon the Avempace. He looked up to the two women. “It’s done,” he said. “Escape pods launched. Other than the command deck’s, obviously.”

Kissandra queried her own ship quietly, confirming the report. She turned back to Nicholas and his captain. “Thank you. I appreciate your cooperation. Richards,” she said through her radio, “once the escape pods are clear, flash them with the EMP.”

The Avempace’s captain lurched to her feet. “No!” she choked. “That will cut out their batteries. They’ll die! You promised!”

“I promised this will be better for your crew. This is. They’re in cryo, and will never know what happened.”

“You’re a monster.”

“If you like. I’ve been called worse.”

The Avempace’s captain gave a strangled cry and launched herself at the privateer captain. Kissandra nodded at the man nearest to her. To Nicholas’ eyes, she seemed almost bored. The man, his visor still clamped down, lifted his rifle slightly. The weapon gave a stuttering clack, and a spray of flechettes tore through the captain’s torso and head. Her body dropped limply to the deck.

Kissandra turned to the other man. “You are still recording?”

He nodded. “Yeah, I got it.”

“Good.” Kissandra turned to Nicholas. “I apologize in advance for the theater, but my employers were specific in regards to their requirements for this operation, leaving me with little latitude for personal indulgences.”

Nicholas felt his throat tighten up. “Who are your employers?”

The corner of her mouth tugged in what might have been the beginnings of a smile. “Do I really look that much like a holodrama villain?” Kissandra turned to the man who had killed the Avempace’s captain. “Get our gentle pilot here suited and up to the peripheral airlock. Let’s see how long he can hold onto hope. Or the airlock door. Either one will work for this.”

“Why?” Nicholas blurted, as his mind struggled to accept the meaning of what was being said to him.

Kissandra turned back to him. “I really am sorry. If it wasn’t you it was going to be someone else. You guys just had the misfortune to be convenient. Bad luck.”

Nicholas froze as the men stepped forward to push him to the ground. Bad luck, he thought numbly.

Just bad luck.

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