The Asteroid Scow
The Cloud Riders Continues...

411_10199_chariklo_main.jpgImage courtesy NASA/JPL

I'm pleased to say that I pushed The Cloud Riders above 12,000 words this week, though progress may stall there for a bit. I have to return to The Sun Runners, which is getting close to finished. However, I'm pleased that I have an opening chapter and the beginnings of an outline. I have a good idea, at least, of where this story is going, and I'm excited to drive the road that gets there.

Below, please find the second half of chapter two of The Could Riders, as Sam, Xavier and Zia go through police and rescue training, and meet their major complication.

So began our instruction as police cadets. It wasn't bad, actually. We had bully instructors, and we had good instructors. We had students who excelled, and we had students who quit after two weeks. And we had Captain Nevins, watching over us, hard but fair. He was clearly in charge of the place, aside from the paperwork, and so it was a sign of his commitment that he took on our class of first years personally.

I did better than average. Actually, I was in the top five. Xavier was right in the middle, where he often liked to be. Zia was number one, of course. She was excellent at martial arts, while I held my own. My classmates soon found that it was to their advantage, not to mention amusing, to pair me with her, though I'm proud to say that she didn't knock me onto my back more than 75% of the time.

We practised aerial moves in our gymnasium, lifted weights to build our arm muscles, and learned every aspect of our aerial suits, some of the weapons we would use (rarely), and the masks that would save our lives.

I managed to live with my celebrity, downplaying it, by just staying calm and working hard. My friends, Zia and Xavier, helped me cope with the rough spots. The tasks that I'd looked forward to were both hard to try, but easy to master, and I was given plenty of opportunities to try.

Police work is not the gritty excitement that the Old Earth vids make it out to be, but it's far from boring. Especially as we prepared to step outside the oxygen enclosure for the first time.

Four weeks into our drills and instructions, they put us on one of the larger rescue Zeppelins, and took us ten clicks away from the Chris Jones HAVOC, my home town. There, we changed into our aerial suit uniforms, and picked up our masks. We stood there, ranks of young people, outlined in black carbon fibre and green fabric, facing doors whose windows opened onto a blank and fluffy horizon, while Captain Nevins gave us a last set of instructions.

"As far as you're concerned," said Nevis, "these masks are an organ of your body. Losing it is as bad as losing a lung, and I don't have to tell you why." He slapped the mask that he was holding in his hand for emphasis. "If you are ever in any part of a craft that is at all likely to experience an envelope breach, you are wearing this. You will check the seals daily, and you will submit them for repair if any flaw is found. Carbon dioxide can be a stealthy killer as well as a vicious one. A small leak can hamper your cognitive abilities, and make you slow, fatigued, confused, and in this job, if you're any of those things, you're dead. Now, find a partner and help each other put on their mask!"

We paired up -- or tripled up, in my case. Zia, Xavier and I slipped the masks on, then helped pull strands of hair back that would have compromised the seals.

The masks, well, masked most of our faces with a breather that mimicked our mouth and nose in black enamelled metal. The straps were also black. We looked like robots, except that the mask and the goggles focused attention on the eyes, which were clearly human.

I waggled my eyebrows at Zia and Xavier. Xavier let out a chortle that echoed behind his breather. Zia rolled her eyes -- something which the goggles really emphasized.

Corporal Callister cleared her throat on the radio, directly into our ears. That was a sound I was going to hate in a hurry. "Now," she said. "Is everybody ready?"

There were mumbles from us.

"I'm serious," she shouted, making many of us flinch. "This is the real deal! Check the status of your seals, now! Wee open the doors in sixty seconds."

I did, touching the controls by my temple and watching the indicators scroll across my vision on my visor. Air seals tight. Oxygen levels full. I was ready. I gave a thumbs up, as did Zia, and everybody else.

At the doors, Susan nodded. "All right, you lot. Let's see what you can do outside."

She pressed a control. Fans whirred to life, sucking in the precious oxygen-nitrogen mix, and the outer doors of the deck opened.

As we stepped outside onto a metal platform, the green portions of our uniforms changed colour, shifting brown, then dark red, then scarlet. I resisted the urge to check the fit of my mask again. This was it. We were in the carbon dioxide of Venus, where one puff of air could kill us. Just keep your breathing steady, I told myself. In. Out. Do not hyperventilate. Focus.

Philip's voice crackled on the radios of our headsets, just a few decibels too loud. "All right, cadets. Time to show what you learned indoors. Moodley!"

Xavier jerked up.

"Lucky you," Philip drawled. "You're with the pilots today."

Xavier pumped his fist. "Yes!"

"Don't get too excited. They're not letting you anywhere near the controls until you're good and ready!" Philip snapped. "Dekker! Naidoo! You climb the rungs. The rest of you, get ready to toss the darts!"

Some of my classmates were insulted to have to do all of the tasks we'd learned inside again once we were let outside, though they were wise enough not to show it. Others, myself included, were wiser still to know that training outside was a whole different balloon than training inside. For one thing, there was the wind, but most of all, there was the depth.

As I moved hand-over-hand along a set of rungs to the end of a girder sticking out of the side of our Zeppelin, I made the mistake of looking down. There were clouds beneath me, and I suddenly lost track of the distance. One moment, I thought a cloud was so close, I risked putting my foot in it and getting burnt. The next, I realized that those clouds were kilometres below. You'd fall for five minutes, and still be a speck that could be seen from the Mess windows.

I'd seen these clouds through glass, and it's amazing how much of a difference glass makes. Sure, there was a safety net beneath me, but out here, the wind brushing my neck and whistling against my mask, it didn't look like enough.

Suddenly, my knuckles were white against the rungs, and I couldn't let go. My breathing quickened and I had a disturbing realization that I was about to scream.

"Hey, hey, it's okay!" said a voice in my ear. Zia's voice.

She said it like a whisper, even though the explanatory text that flashed at the corner of my vision told me she'd found a private channel to speak to me.

I turned my head, and saw her a few feet away from me, hanging from both hands. I could only see her eyes, but they were enough.

"You've done this before," she said. "Indoors. You're as fast as I am. You've got this. Right?"

I forced my reply through a dry mouth. "R-right." I took a deep breath of oxygen, held it, then slowly let it go. "Right." I focused on one hand and willed the fingers to open. Then I grabbed the next rung, and that was enough to break the spell. I went hand over hand to the end of the girder and touched the finishing button before turning. As I passed Zia, I said, "Thanks."

She clambered past and touched the button.

We switched up after that, with Zia and I joining the group tossing darts. A training Zeppelin pulled alongside our platform, and moved back about fifty feet. I spotted Xavier in the co-pilot's seat, watching the pilot with interest. He spotted me and gave me a thumbs up.

Cadets stood on the Zepplin's platform, keeping one hand to the ship, while the other held a weight (called a "dart") at the end of a long cable. Swinging the dart, they judged the distance, took aim, and lobbed it across, the cable trailing behind like a comet's tail. Our side would catch the darts, and reel in the cable, before tossing the darts back.

Zia and I had gone a couple of successful rounds when I saw it. Movement caught my eye, and I found myself looking up.

There was a speck in the blue sky. I frowned at it. I'm Venusian-born, so the possibility that it was a bird didn't enter my mind. Specks shouldn't be above you, unless it's another Zeppelin. This didn't look like a Zeppelin. It looked so small, I thought it was a person. And if a person was alone in the big, clear sky, they were falling.

But the speck was moving slowly, too slowly. And as it got bigger, I realized that it wasn't small enough to be a person. Instead, it had been too far away for me to judge. It was bigger. Much bigger. But it still wasn't a Zeppelin.

"What the heck's that?" I pointed.

"What?" Zia's voice rasped in my ear. She looked at me, then tried to follow my point. Her gaze strafed the sky. "I don't see anything."

Then the speck did something that no person or Zeppelin could do: it fired a rocket burner.

"What, the-- I see it!" said Zia unnecessarily.

Other students were looking up, and the speck fired more rockets, in short bursts, trying to slow its descent. A tossed dart barely missed my legs and clanged against the metal platform.

"Dekker, what the hell are you doing!" Philip roared, delighted to have a chance to ream me out.

I pointed at the speck again. "But, Corporal! Look!"

Despite himself, he looked, and his hands dropped to his sides. "What, the--"

It was all over the chatter on our radios now. Radio control was getting seriously annoyed.

"What in sulphur is that?"

"It doesn't look like one of the robot shuttles."

"What's it doing?"

Nevins' voice cut through the chatter. "Quiet! All of you! Corporal Mode, report! What do you see?"

Then Zia identified it, though I could tell she hardly believed it. "It's an asteroid scow."

Philip scoffed. "Are you joking, Naidoo? That's over a hundred million kilometres too far away and eight years too late--"

Susan's voice cut in. "She's right." I looked over at Corporal Callister. She was staring with the rest of us, her shoulders slack.

I looked up and realized that Zia was right, even if Philip wasn't out of line by being incredulous. I still had a copy of Janes' Book of Spacecraft, and now that I realized my eyes weren't deceiving me, the outline became obvious.

But it should have been impossible. After the Earth collapsed, the asteroid scows had abandoned their mines and formed huge convoys, completing the journey to Mars by pooling resources. It was almost as long a trip between Mars and Venus as it was between the Asteroid Belt and Mars; it would have been harder for a single ship to survive.

And as the rockets fired intermittently, pitching the scow back and forth, I realized that it hadn't survived, yet.

"It's in trouble," I said into the radio. "We need to catch it, or else it's going into the clouds."

Silence greeted my words, but I wouldn't have it.

"I said, we need to catch it!" I pointed to the cadets on the opposite platform. "Come on! Tie off your cables, we've got to build a net!"

"You're not the one to give the orders, cadet!" shouted Peter into my ear, even as I saw cadets starting to latch the cables into place and gather up the darts.

I faced him. "If we don't do anything, whoever's in there is going to die!"

He shook his head. "This has nothing to do with us. The pilot's probably dead already. Those rockets are firing on automatic."

"What is our job here?" I yelled.

"Cadet, stand down!" Susan snarled. "Let the professionals handle it. They've got the training to take the risk."

I rounded on her. "But we're the only ones out here, and we're running out of time! Who else can do this if not us?"

Susan glared, but said nothing. She glanced at Peter, who looked up at the struggling scow. He tapped his radio. "Captain Nevins? What are your orders, sir?"

The next moment of silence stretched, along with our nerves, as we waited for Nevins' response. Everyone kept an eye on the struggling scow as it descended lower and closer. "Come on," I breathed.

On the line, I thought heard Nevis mutter, "Blake Dekker's is going to kill me."

But I knew he knew I was right: if we did nothing, we would stand around watch the scow as it fell out of the sky to its doom. I couldn't do that, and I didn't think Nevis could, either.

And I was right about Nevis.

"All right." His voice crackled through our radios. "Cadets, this is not a drill. We're going to catch that scow."

My stomach lurched as the engines revved, and we dropped. We had to get far enough under the asteroid scow in order have enough time to build the net to catch it.

I wasn't afraid. Or, was I? I wasn't excited, either, though my heart pounded and my fingers tingled. Maybe it was equal parts of both, to know that training time was over, and we were moving to save someone's life.

If there was somebody alive in there.

We dropped two hundred meters, the other Zeppelin keeping pace with us, and I imagined that the temperature rose, though I knew rationally that the temperature changes didn't happen that fast.

Then the other Zeppelin flashed a light, and lobbed a dart.

"There she goes!" shouted Susan. "Dekker! Catch it!"

My eyes were already on the dart, its nib rounded to prevent puncturing the outer skin, its guide-wire trailing out behind it. It drifted across the distance between the two ships, rising and falling in an arc that I traced ahead, seeing how far out--

My fingers clenched the stanchion, I leaned out above the cloud floor and embraced the falling dart with my left arm. Zia, who'd already had her fingers clenched on the strap across my shoulder blades, hauled back, and I swung up my prize.

"Good work, cadet!" should Philip. "Now tie her off!"

We did, while Xavier flashed the light and fired our dart across the gap. More darts were flying, sending out guide-wires back and forth cross the gap, building our net. I looked up. The asteroid scow was fifty metres above us and falling, faster now.

Susan touched her communicator. "Sir! She's coming in hot!"

Nevis ordered more power to our engines, which revved up. Even so, we all looked up nervously as we heard the shuttle's engines fire and misfire. Gravity was winning the battle. She was forty meters above us. Twenty. Ten.

I gripped the stanchion hard as the scow hit our net of guide-wires. They sagged. The gap between the two Zeppelins narrowed sharply. The floor pitched. Our engines strained. Nevis's orders rang in our ears, but there was nothing we could do until the engine crew could stabilize our altitude.

Then the floor stopped pitching. The guide-wires tightened, and the scow rose as the Zeppelins pulled apart. A look at where we'd tied them off told us that everything was holding. Now stable, the scow's rockets stopped firing.

So, we had the scow. Now what? Somebody had to look in, and as soon as all departments reported all clear, the order came through.

"Dekker! Naidoo!" Susan shouted. "You're up!"

Zia and I glanced at each other, then at cadets behind us who signalled that our harnesses were ready. I focused on the scow in our net.

Okay, so today, I got lucky. This is much more excitement than I had any right to expect from being a police cadet. I didn't care. So, I'm no Raymond Chandler, but could Philip Marlowe do this?

I leapt from the gantry and opened my arms wide. The frills of my aerial suit caught the air, and I flew.

Philip would correct me, loudly, to say that I glided, not flew. But it was easy to forget that I was harnessed to a guide-wire that could pull me back to the rescue ship when I gave the signal, or when I looked like I was in trouble. The wind buffeted my face and my mask as I rushed towards the scow. I flew. Then I tucked my arms and legs in, braced, and landed against the nose of the spaceship, knocking only a little of the wind out of me.

I clung to the nose of the spaceship. Zia's boots clomped as she hit the metal next to me. The window shields weren't engaged, so I could see into the cabin. There was someone sprawled against the controls.

"Somebody's in there," I said into my radio.

"Are they alive?" asked Zia.

"I don't--" Then the figure stirred. Whoever it was pushed away, and looked up at us through the helmet of a pressure suit. I couldn't see much through two panes of vacuum-rated glass, but I saw a pair of eyes that were wide, afraid and pleading, before they slumped back onto the console.

It pulled at me, that look. At that moment, there was no way I was going to let this ship slip through our net and vanish into the clouds of Venus.

"Yes!" I shouted. "We're going to need oxygen, and some way to get through the airlock."

"We can haul in the scow." This was Peter's voice. "Get it to a secure area where we can blast in the doors."

"How long is that going to take?" I snapped. Thirty minutes, at least. "The pilot's dying in there. We have to go in, now!"

"Orders, Captain?" said Susan through the radio.

I waited. I'd pushed as far as I could without risking charges of insubordination. Actually, I was pretty sure my outburst was going to go on a report, somewhere. But I waited.

Finally, Nevins said, "Get them oxygen tanks. Cadet Naidoo, move to the airlock. Tell me what you see."

She did, while I stayed by the window and watched the stricken pilot. Zia clambered across the hull of the asteroid scow. The grips in the gloves and the toes of our aerial suits helped, but she found footholds that I could not have seen. Finally, she reached the outer airlock and pulled the panel off of the controls next to it, letting it fall to the clouds below us. She peered in at the touch panel.

"Whoever it is cut most of the security lockouts on the airlock," she said. "I can override the rest. Samuel, is the pilot in a space-suit?"

I looked again. "Yeah." Though I didn't know how useful it was at the moment.

"Captain Nevins, sir," said Zia. "Requesting permission to enter."

"Do it," Nevins replied. "You too, Dekker. Somebody will be along shortly with the oxygen."

I left my position by the front windows of the scow and crawled across the hull to where Zia was keying in codes. The screen flashed green, and the door slid back. Zia and I shared a look before unhooking the safety wires from our harnesses (tying them off on handholds by the door), and slipping inside.

I'd never seen the inside of an asteroid scow before. There weren't many pictures, and I suspected it was because the interior was boring. The scows were built on the cheap. They needed to be in order to make asteroid mining profitable. The scow had one room, which served as control centre, kitchen and place to sleep. A single cot had been pulled down from its receptacle in the wall. In the stern of the cabin were tanks holding air and the ship's fuel. These were controlled with dials and gaskets, and the all the dials showed nearly empty.

We looked to the bow, and saw the pilot, still slumped over the controls. We came closer.

It was a woman. She was dressed in the modern form-fitting pressure suit, and she looked to be about the same age as Zia and me. Not that I was sure how I could tell. Even slumped against the controls, she looked taller than us, and thinner, like a willow tree. Her arms looked like delicate branches. We couldn't see much of her face because her helmet was so fogged up.

I touched her arm, and she jerked, letting out a cough that might have been a cry of surprise.

She rolled over, and slipped off the console and slid down to the floor, struggling, but failing to sit up. Seeing us, she reached up to undo the locks of her helmet.

I glanced at my sleeve. The fabric between the black bands had faded to brown-green as we'd entered the scow. They were now growing increasingly bright red.

"Whoa, whoa," I said, grabbing her hands and holding them as she struggled. "Take it easy. The air in here's no good."

"He's right!" Zia came forward, flourished a silver tank before pushing the woman to her back. I looked back at the airlock. Two more cadets had joined us, having delivered the oxygen. They stood, watching, not sure what to do with themselves.

Zia continued, "We've got oxygen. Just hold on. Samuel, hold her down!"

"I'm trying!" The woman wasn't holding on. She was panicking, and though she looked weak, panic was giving her a strength that made it hard for me to hold her. The other cadets hovered, unsure what to do, and to be fair, I wasn't sure, either.

Zia pulled the covering off the emergency air valves of the woman's pressure suit and fitted the air tank to one of the nozzles. She screwed the tank in tighter and tighter until the seal broke. Air hissed into the pressure suit.

The effect was immediate. The woman froze. Her chest heaved as she gulped in the better air. Zia pressed a hand to the woman's abdomen to tell her not to hyperventilate.

The woman's breaths became slower, longer. She looked at us. Looked at me, carefully and for such a long moment that I frowned. I saw blue eyes, red hair, pale skin and freckles. Her nose was long and narrow. Her lips were a dark line -- probably still blue from hypoxia.

Then she reached up and twisted a knob on her helmet. She spoke. At first, all I could hear was her voice muffled through her helmet, before it finally sparked on my radio.

"Can you hear me?" she gasped. Her voice was high, soft, and wispy. There was an accent I could not place, butt it made made me think of old Earth country houses, and Agatha Christie.

"We can hear you," I said, clasping her hand to keep her from tuning her radio out of our common frequency. "We got you. You're safe, now."

"Can you move?" asked Zia.

The woman tried to sit up, but she fell back instantly. "I... can't," she gasped. She let out a grunt, and there was pain in it. I could see panic rising in her eyes again. "I can't!"

"Are you hurt?" I asked. "Is anything broken?"

"I don't know," the woman wheezed. "It's all just so... heavy!"

Zia and I looked at each other, perplexed. "What do you mean?" I asked.

"Everything! Everything is so heavy!" She let out a little cry, as though even that was painful. "I can't... Help!"

The mysteries piled up. Who was she? How did she get here? The asteroid scows had fled the Asteroid Belt ten years ago, after the Earth collapsed. The ones that survived took refuge on Mars, the last one docking eight years ago. Docking at...

That's when it hit me: Mars.

She was a Martian.

On a planet with three times the gravity.

I shouted into his radio. "We're going to need a med team, with a exo-suit, right now!"

My radio squawked. "What?" Susan sounded incredulous, and I didn't blame her. "Where do you think we're going to get an exo-suit?"

"Just find something, or make something," I shouted. "She's going to need it!"

I leaned back in. "It's okay," I said, finding and clasping the woman's hand, gently. "We're getting you out of here and to hospital. You're going to be safe. Tell me: what's your name?"

The young woman struggled for breath. Her eyelids fluttered. She looked at me.

"Pandora," she wheezed. Then her eyes closed, and her head fell back.

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