The Baron Rises... read Chapter 1
Updated: Dec 17, 2022
'Cassy,’ Jessica whispered.
It was a still image. The only one she had. A sweep of blond curls brushing against a hazel brown eye.
It had been woven into cloth by a big old Sue she’d bunked next to on the transport out of the solar system.
Twenty years with nothing to do but think and talk.
That did something to a person.
Her breath turned into steam in the cold air, obscuring the image. The steam mingled with the breath of more than twenty others huddled together in a barren loading bay for warmth.
Grinders, they were called, a mining crew made up of waifs and strays from all over the twin systems. Scouring the dark edges of the Red Eye System for traces of Bororium. Or what some called “Still Fire”.
The floor of the Bay rumbled. Heavy machinery working somewhere in the guts of the ship.
Who was she kidding? This was the guts of the ship. And she knew damned well where the sounds were coming from and what they meant.
A big Joe coughed next to her. The cavernous hack of someone whose lungs have been ruined by a decade in dust. He spat out what the other Grinders called a “Gretch”: a grey mass of infected phlegm that hit the metal floor between his boots with a splat.
Jessica Steel whipped the image away, shielding the fragile material with her forearm. The big Joe apologised, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and said: ‘What’s her name?’
Steel frowned at him.
The Joe pointed a blunt finger at the square piece of fabric she had clutched in one hand. ‘The child.’
The machinery rumbled again. Stressed metal squealed. The sound reverberating around the unforgiving confines of the Drop Bay.
The Joe stared at the Gretch at his feet. ‘This aint no quarantine,’ the Joe grunted. ‘We’ll all die cooped up in here together.’
A loud bang. The Bay shuddered. Something hit from the outside. Nothing too big. But something. ‘We’re docking,’ one of the Sues said, rising to her feet, her voice full of desperate hope.
She was shushed and dragged down. No one believed they were docking.
They could be anywhere. But no one believed they had made it to anything resembling civilisation. They’d been searching the Wilds for over four months, pitching up at rock after rock with little success. But there were no windows and the Company never shared their coordinates. The only thing you knew was one day you were turfed out of your cramped bunks into the Drop Bay. No clue if it were day or night at Home… wherever that was. Sometimes you got oxygen and head gear to go with your “Hard Skin” polymer suit, sometimes you went ‘Bare-Head’ into whatever rotten-egg atmosphere they’d deemed was safe this time.
Another loud bang followed by a series of rapid-fire pock’s that reminded Steel of a distant memory: the drumroll of heavy rain on the corrugated iron roof of her family lean-to.
‘Gravel.’ Big Joe said. ‘They must be taking us through the Pits. Figures.’
‘They’ll shred the bloody hull,’ another Joe grumbled. ‘Why would they take us through the Pits? There’s nothing to collect.’
An eruption of coughing followed.
‘We’re not fit to do any collecting,’ a young, frail-looking Sue said.
Steel folded the cloth image. Looked across toward the Bay doors. ‘That’s just it though isn’t it?’ she murmured. ‘They aren’t collecting.’
A deafening hiss. The stench of grease. Spinning amber warning lights at the far side of the Bay. Rat-a-tat-tat against the hull, making the whole Bay shudder. Commotion down near the doors.
‘They’re increasing the pressure,’ someone said.
‘We’ve no ore to Purge,’ the young Sue said.
The big Joe stood up next to Steel. ‘They aren’t purging ore.’
Silence. The hum of power that you became deaf to after months of travel ceased.
‘You hear that?’ one Joe said into the new quiet. ‘The Drive. They shut the Drive. We’re drifting.’
Others stood now as the commotion by the doors became panic. Ten Joes, and ten Sues backing away as their breath froze in the slowly cooling atmosphere.
‘They’re dumping us!’
Steel studied the walls for the exit doors. Sealed tight. No escape. Any minute now, the doors would open into the vacuum of space.
Two hundred infected souls sucked into the skirts of an asteroid belt.
She clasped the folded image against her chest. Clenched her teeth. Felt a cold tear sting the corner of her eye. Deaf to the screaming. Blind to the violent attempts at escape.
There was no escaping the void.
She closed her eyes. She would not waste her final seconds in fear. She would not even waste them fumbling with the image. The perfect smile of her little girl was more vivid and more real in her minds eye than any image could ever be.
‘I am sorry, my love,’she recited as she had many times before. ‘But I will meet you in the frozen darkness. The distance between galaxies will be no more. We will meet in the frozen darkness. I will find you.’
The grinding gears sounded like bones crunching under caterpillar tracks. Steel breathed out. She’d seen plenty of Joes asphyxiate in the void as their equipment failed. It was usually quick. Some died immediately. The oxygen held in their lungs expanding and rupturing. Others lasted a minute or two longer unconscious.
She reached behind her with her free hand. Jammed her fist between a steel pipe and the wall. The universe would have to tear her lifeless body from this metal coffin.
The squeal of the enormous doors opening sang a high note above the screams.
A rush of air.
Then absolute silence.
She felt the void pull the heat from her body.
That’s how long they said you could stay conscious in space.
She would spend those fifteen seconds with Cassy.
Breeze on a sunny winters evening. Fire warming the stove; smoke floating over the lake.
Cassy doing a cart wheel in her bright blue fleece. Walking since she was barely one…
The cold tightened the skin around her face. Her lungs felt hot.
Momma and Pops with all their big ideas, staring into the night sky after rocket-trails…
Her lips burned. She tasted sulphur.
The vacuum wrenched at her body, ripping her legs from under her. Dull pain in her fist. Something popping in her shoulder.
Cassy. Bloody knee. Spitting on a cotton ball. Dabbing the wound. Clearing the mud. The grit around her…
Her lungs spiked.
She felt something hard against her forehead. Constricting. Nimble fingers around the nape of her neck.
Now. The time is now.
The muscles in her fist softened. Slipped from the behind the pipe.
A hiss of white noise whispered close to her ear:
Warmth flooded her face.
She instinctively opened her eyes.
The Big Joe. He was holding on to her arm.
The Big Joe smiled.
A crackle. A voice in her ear. ‘Breathe.’
‘Cassy?’ she whispered.
Then Big Joe’s expression went slack, robbing the smile from his face. His grip on her arm loosened. Then he was gone, sucked into the empty Bay and out into the yawning blackness of space.
Jessica Steel stared after him and took a breath.