The Unlucky Colonist

In the space yards, construction accidents were rare, but those that did occur tended to be spectacular. A couple of days following Fred’s meeting with Veronica’s proxy, a railgun that was shooting silver ingots from a decommissioned Oship to one of the Lucky Five malfed, spraying a stream of twenty-five-kilogram metal bricks across a wide arc of space. Most had trajectories that sent them harmlessly away from the station, but several dozen were heading for its most densely built regions. Waste scuppers successfully intercepted all but a handful of these. One ingot slammed into one of the habitation drums of the Chernobyl. It pierced the hull plating but was stopped dead by the outer saltwater jacket that shielded the drums from galactic cosmic rays and asteroid strikes. The escaping water froze and formed an ice plug, just as it was designed to do.

Another silver brick struck the engine of a shuttle, causing a crippling explosion that sent the craft into the path of a construction tender, which in turn took out several more ships in a chain reaction that halted all traffic in the Aria yards for several hours.

A third penetrated Fred’s docking spar several space gates away from his own. He left his proxy in charge and hurried to the accident scene to lend a hand. When he arrived, the russ security and donald dockworkers were engaged in patching two breaches in the spar hull. The ingot had passed through the spar, but the holes didn’t line up. The ingot had been deflected by something inside the spar, and Fred searched the space gate to determine what it was. It turned out to be the belt mechanism that fed the gate’s railgun. Fred swam over just as a gang of donalds was removing a cryocapsule that had been crushed inside the mechanism. The capsule was split along its seams, and the damage was so extensive that there was no doubt the colonist inside was irretrievable.

Something odd caught Fred’s eye — a spot of blood on the belt and more along the capsule seam. He might have missed it, since blood at an accident scene was unremarkable, but the biostatic process that these capsules employed required dehydrating the blood. If he saw blood, it should be in a powder form, not liquid.

When Fred looked up, all the donalds in his vicinity were straining themselves to control their laughter. This was such an odd response to a deadly emergency that he looked around to see what they were laughing at. A lone donald was performing a burlesque of a ballet. At first Fred was confounded by this bizarre behavior, but then he recalled the retroboy’s erotic dance in the method nightclub and his Original Flaw. And, in fact, the donald seemed to be sodomizing himself with his tail as he danced, leaving no doubt as to his meaning. When the clown realized that Fred was watching him, he froze in midair. All of the donalds surrounding him seemed to hold their breath. How did they know about the method? Fred turned back to the crushed cryocapsule. Top Ape, himself, was there with fear in his eyes.

In a state of shock, Fred managed to set aside the incident for the moment, and he glanced deliberately at the ceiling. Top Ape understood and leaped into action. Dock work at the space gate had been suspended during the emergency; now Top Ape got it started again. He formed unnecessarily complicated bucket lines of cargo crates and shells that effectively shielded Fred from all of the fixed security cams. Meanwhile, Fred turned off his TECA sidekick. He pulled a tiny scout from a pouch on his belt and linked it to his Spectre. He placed the scout inside the split seam of the capsule and sent it to explore the interior. What it should have found was biostasis maintenance equipment: pumps, electronics, a liquid nitrogen reservoir. But what it did find was an assault rifle, ammunition, field supplies, a portable medkit.

The supposed colonist, himself, wore a battle suit and was packed into the tight space like a contortionist. As the scout reached his head, which was crushed beyond repair, Fred wasn’t sure who he would see. The member of some aff’s private army? A cloned soldier? What he did see was the biggest surprise of all. The soldier was a TOTE.

Fred recalled his scout. While he waited for it, he swiped the capsule’s control panel, which was redlined across the board. The name that popped up was certain to be counterfeit, but the capsule’s final destination was not — the Chernobyl.

When Top Ape returned, Fred told him to lose the cryocapsule somewhere where it would never be found and to fix all records of it. Then he returned to his own space gate. Along the way, the donalds struggled to contain their mockery.

THE FOLLOWING DAY, as Fred was returning on a shuttle from a scheduled mentar delivery to the Kiev, and an unscheduled visit to the Chernobyl, he received an urgent call from Mando.

“Fred!” his friend exclaimed. “The Fentan has a slot! You still want to go? It leaves in four days. Should I buy it for you?”

“Yes,” he said without having to think. “Buy it.”

By the time Fred arrived back at his rez wheel, he had withdrawn seven hundred hours of emergency personal leave, to commence at once. His plan was to move on board the Fentan as soon as he could, but before he was finished packing, he received a summons to the Elbow Room. He had been expecting it, and there was no getting around it, so he left his packed travel bag and returned to civieside for one final meeting.

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