The Cloud Riders, Chapter One: The Asteroid Scow

We successfully pushed our Kickstarter campaign past the goal line to help fund my upcoming science fiction anthology, Tales from the Silence. It and my new novel, The Sun Runners, will be released through Shadowpaw Press (and its Endless Sky imprint) on November 12, 2024. I'm organizing launch parties around these two books in Ottawa, Toronto, and Waterloo with the help of Bakka-Phoenix and Words Worth Books. Thank you to everyone who made the Kickstarter campaign a success, and look for further announcements about book launch events in the coming weeks.

I'm looking forward to sharing these books with you, especially with the different takes my guest authors had on the Silent Earth universe. Between Tales from the Silence and The Sun Runners, you will get a clear picture of how the worlds of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt fare when the Earth's climate crisis catches up to it and silences human civilization on the home world.

One of the more interesting things about this project is the fact that the writers who were setting their stories on Venus or Mars (or even the Asteroid Belt) were writing short stories that were technically anticipating their source material. The Cloud Riders is the companion novel that I'd like to publish after The Sun Runners, featuring an interplanetary Country Mouse/City Mouse storyline set on Venus and Mars which I hope will see print late in 2025 or early in 2026.

Even though the draft of my novel was written first, the writers were writing continuity that hadn't been formally established by my novels yet. I think they did a great job. But to help you judge that, and to help set up the Venus and Mars stories on Tales from the Silence (as well as to further promote The Sun Runners and ultimately The Cloud Riders), I'm posting the first chapter of The Cloud Riders as it currently stands.

I'd like to thank Ben Berman Ghan for editing my previous draft of The Cloud Riders and making this novel better. I hope you enjoy this introduction to life on Venus, and the characters of The Cloud Riders.

Cloud City at Sunset, by Belsavor
Cloud City at Sunset, by Belsavor, used in accordance with their Creative Commons license.

The Cloud Riders
Chapter One: The Asteroid Skow

Vanera 4 Elementary School
Chris Jones HAVOC, Venus
September 12, 2152

Dear Martian,

How are you? My name is Samantha Dekker; my friends call me Sam.

Actually, they usually call me Sammy. Then there's Xiaur, who's a friend who calls me Samantha, no matter how often I correct him.

I'm twelve years old, by Earth years. If Venus had a calendar, I'd be just over 18 days old. Do you think it's weird we still measure things by Earth's years, even though the Earth isn't around anymore to tell us what day it is? Still, I think I can see why. I mean, how old are you in Martian years? Six?

My teacher is making me write this letter. The whole class got this assignment to write to Martian kids like you. I hope you like the paper. I don't even know who you are, but I'll find out when you write back. Jin is already teasing people, mostly me, about becoming pen pals with a Martian Prince.

I know you don't really have princes and princesses over there.

Well, prince, princess, or not, it doesn't matter. Whatever your gender, I'm sure you'll be cool because you're from another planet, and that's cool. You have ground to walk on and ice to skate on, and that's cool, too. I've seen some of the drones you've sent us, as they come in from the surface after mining. We took apart an old Martian robot at school yesterday, which was really cool!

I'm in my sixth year at elementary school. Next Blueberry Season, I'll be moving on to vocational school. I'm going to be a police and rescue officer, just like my Dad. He's cool, though not quite as cool as the police detectives in the old Earth movies. Did you ever watch those? I like The Big Sleep. And Die Hard. And Greenwich Beat 2050.

We don't get crime here like old Earth did, but being a police and rescue officer is still cooler than being a farmer or a cloud miner. And I'd like to see Dirty Harry do his takedowns in the air.

I look forward to hearing from you and hearing about what life is like on Mars, what old Earth movies you enjoy, and what cool things you do.

Sincerely,
Sam Dekker

=+=+=

Viking 7 Grammar School
Biosphere 7, Elysium Planitia, Mars
September 19, 2152

Dear Sam,

How do you do? My name is Pandorian.

You will notice that I called you Sam, not Samantha, nor Sammy, because I'd like to be your friend. And I didn't call you 'Venusian' either, because if you're going to introduce yourself to somebody you don't know, my etiquette teacher says that, on Venus, you should call them 'senior', or 'honoured', and not Mx. Planet That You're Living On. Right, Mx. Venusian?

And am I a Martian prince? I don't know. I've never been called one, and I would be much obliged if you didn't start.

Seriously, though: you live in a HAVOC? How do you sleep in all that noise?

Yes, I looked it up: High Altitude Venusian Operating City. You live in a giant balloon that floats above the acid clouds of Venus.

Which is absolutely cracking cool!

You fly fifty-five kilometres in the air! Which I suppose you'd have to, since I'm told the surface would kill you quicker than a gunshot. Our surface would kill us too, but I think yours would kill you faster, so, you win that race!

My parents run a business (not a monarchy), mining water, mostly. It's really too boring to write about, and I want to know more about your world! How do you make this super cool paper? And what's it like to wake up on a cloud? That last one sounds like something drippy my sister would say, but I really want to know!

Outside my window, all I see are red rocks and pink sky. Maybe I can see mountains in the distance if the dust storms settle down. If I want more colours, I can go to my biosphere's garden. I walk there with Pounder, my robot dog. My favourite colour is blue because it's the rarest of them all. I see pinks and reds all the time outside my windows. I see blacks, white, silvers and browns in the corridors and classrooms. There are greens, yellows, and oranges in the gardens, and that's nice, but the only speck of blue are the buntings in the biosphere, and they won't stay still!

Well, there was the other time, when my father took me to see a cavern we'd opened up in a glacier where we mine some of our water. The ice seemed to suck in the light from our head lamps and radiate it back as black-blue. It was like nothing I'd ever seen. And, unfortunately, I can't just walk back to the glacier; I'd get in the way of the workers.

I've seen pictures of Old Earth in our classrooms: again, so much blue! But these are just pictures. Neither of us have seas, and we can't see the Earth's sky, so how is yours?

Is the sky blue in your world?

Sincerely,
Pandorian Anastas, age 12 (Earth years).

=+=+=

(Six Years Later)

It was an early breakfast at the cadet school's Mess Hall as, sucking on a carb-candy, I looked out the windows at the beauty of Venus below.

The sulphuric clouds were mounded black and orange. The sky above was turning slowly red, tinting towards blue. Soon, the Sun would rise, turning everything white on white. Our HAVOC's engines purred beneath our feet.

"Hey, Sammy?" Jin's voice almost broke my concentration. "You with us?"

The Mess Hall was full of people, divided by year. The first-year students clustered around their tables, excited, chattering. The second and third years sat relaxed, smiling benignly and not-so-benignly at the younger students, wondering if they were ever that uncool. Watching over them all were the seniors, who'd been given their first taste of authority and liked it too much. They perched around the edge of the room, eying their charges.

Xiaur sighed. "She's speaking into her sub-vocal recorder again."

"Really? I can't hear her."

"That's why they call it a sub-vocal recorder."

I'm a first year, but I know the next four years will be hard work, and I'm ready for it. I've been waiting for this chance all my life. I'll graduate strong, get a placement aboard a large cloud-miner, maybe even the capital, and make my dad proud.

"Samantha Dekker!" Xiaur shouted. "will you pay attention?"

I flinched. "What?"

He held up a cup.  "You want the last yogurt?"

Did I look like I wanted the last yogurt? Did police detectives let themselves be caught dead with yogurt? Did--

"It's blueberry," Jin chimed in.

Blueberries! I crunched and swallowed my carb-candy and snatched up the cup. "Thanks!"

Xiaur smirked at me. He knew police detectives didn't let themselves get caught dead with yogurt. But Bean Season was over. Blueberry Season had begun. It was time to dedicate ourselves to work and also enjoy their sweet tartness.

Xiaur knew this, and I respected that.

And I liked that smirk.

=+=+=

These were my friends, Jin Moodley and Xiaur Naidoo, at the start of Blueberry Season and the start of cadet school. We were surrounded by students from all around Venus, ready to learn the ropes and become members of the Venusian Police and Rescue Force.

Jin, Xiaur and I were local kids. We'd grown up together on the Chris Jones HAVOC, the second largest Cloud City of Venus. But local kids were a minority here. Most of the class came from the other Uber-Zeppelins like the Geoffrey Landis and Pamela Sargeant HAVOCs, or the farm and forest platforms. Some even came from the capital, Perelandra. We were fresh faces, all.

Jin's the youngest of us -- just a couple of weeks from turning eighteen, but he preens. He admits it. He's always the first to dance. As elementary school gave way to vocational school, he landed dates. People liked his green eyes, chestnut hair, and cheeky grin. Nobody left disappointed. Not even me.

Jin laughed. "Hey, Sammy, are you narrating us like your hard-boiled Raymond Chandler novels again?"

"Why do they call them hard-boiled?" Xiaur muttered. "It's not like they have yokes."

Xiaur had been with Jin when I glommed onto their group after hearing them talk about police detective movies from Old Earth. Even after their interest in old movies waned, we stuck together. Jin cracked jokes, I laughed, and Xiaur nodded and rolled his eyes. We made a good team.

Where Jin was exuberant, Xiaur was grounded. He looked as immovable as a mountain from Old Earth, with dark skin, black hair and dark eyes. Solid. Reliable. He never danced -- recreationally, at least. I think it was because he wouldn't let himself be asked, and I never asked him.

He frowned at me. "Samantha, enough. I can see your jaw muscles moving."

And he called me Samantha, to this day, when everybody else called me Sammy, and I wanted to be called Sam. But that was his way, and I'd long given up trying to correct him.

"Samantha," said Xiaur. "I'm going to take that recorder off your throat and toss it into recycling."

He looked at the world with a sombre, dark gaze until he smiled. Then it was like the Sun rising.

"Right." Xaiur's chair scraped back. "Give it here!"

The bell rang as he came for me. I scurried back, putting a hand to my throat. Jin shoved back his seat and picked up our plates while I struggled to twist away from Xiaur's grip. "Come on, you two!" he called "Class time!"

"Kind of occupied!" I grunted. Xiaur gripped my shoulder and pulled me back.

Just then, we heard a cough that, though we hadn't really met anybody yet, still told us to stop what we were doing right now. We turned.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they change the room around them. Every student within a four-chair radius was now staring at their plates. Many had their hands discreetly over their mouths, stifling their laughter at us.

Xiaur and I faced a man built like my father but older, white-haired, and with a longer face. He didn't look angry, but he looked like he'd seen a lot, and what he was seeing right now was a disappointment.

This was Captain Nevins, cadet school administrator and our first teacher for the day. Sulphur!

"Ah." Nevins nodded as though we'd lived down to his expectations. "Cadet Dekker and Cadet Naidoo. Nice to see you ready to start the day. I look forward to you applying your enthusiasm to your studies. Carry on." He turned and marched off.

Xiaur glared at me. "Thanks, Samantha."

"What for?"

"For getting us into trouble!"

"You were the one who was all over me!"

Jin guffawed.

"Shut it!" Xiaur and I snapped at him in unison.

Jin just grinned. "Come on, you two. We're going to be late."

Everybody else was filing out. Xiaur and I glanced at each other again before he headed off to our first class.

=+=+=

Jin, Xiaur and I found seats in the middle of a small auditorium. Twenty of us, clumped by city of origin, faced the front whiteboards, talking amongst ourselves, waiting.

Suddenly, the door by the front of the hall burst open, and two upper-class students marched in: a young man and a woman, both seniors. They faced us beside the lectern.

"Greetings, cadets," said the young man, emphasizing the second word in a way that made us instantly hate him. "I'm Corporal Peter Mode, and my colleague is Corporal Susan Callister. We're here to help Captain Nevins, your instructor, teach you what you need to know about aerial work."

"So, listen up!" Susan smacked a desk with a ruler. "Respect your betters and pay attention to your lessons. What you hear from us will probably save your lives."

"The first thing you need to know about aerial work for the Venusian Police and Rescue Force is how to fall," said Peter.

"Yeah." Susan chuckled. "Don't. Because if you fall, you will die."

"I know you think you'll be wearing aerial suits, and you will, but aerial suits don't help you fly," said Peter. "They help you glide, which is like falling, only slower."

"You'll still be falling faster than anybody could ever hope to catch you," said Susan. "So aerial suit or no, falling beyond your last handhold is death. Eventually."

Peter nodded. "Yeah. Eventually. One good thing about falling on Venus is that you don't die from the impact. You're dead before you hit the ground."

Susan laughed. "Long before you hit the ground."

"Every meter you descend, the temperature goes up," said Peter.

"Along with the pressure." Susan brought her hands together as though squeezing air from a balloon. "Until it's like there's rocks on your chest."

"Then you pass into the cloud level," said Peter.

"Boiling masses of sulphuric acid!"

"Not to mention perpetual lightning."

"Zap!" cried Susan.

"By this point, the temperature around you is above boiling," said Peter.

"Above the combustion point of paper, in fact," Susan added. "Not that you'd spontaneously combust; you'd need oxygen for that. Instead, you just kind of... melt."

"By the time you reach the surface, the pressure is enough to compress you into your oxygen mask," said Peter. "Which makes you a conveniently-sized package to bring back up from the surface, though we won't do that."

Susan cackled. "We don't have the resources for that."

I'll say this for them: they had our full attention.

The door opened, and Peter and Susan snapped to attention. Captain Nevins strolled past them. "Cadets," he said. "Welcome to your first week of training for the Venusian Police and Rescue force. I see that you've met my teaching assistants, Corporals Mode and Callister." He began slow-stepping up the aisles between us. "Now, before I begin, there are things I want to make clear: I am here to teach, and I expect you to learn, because if you don't learn well enough in this job, you will die, and I won't have that." He walked to the back of the class before turning. By some instinct or ancient knowledge, we kept our ears open and our faces forward.

"You may not think it to look at me," Nevins went on, walking back to the front of the class, "but I am not averse to a little fun now and then, so long as any comic relief or letting-off-of-steam doesn't threaten anyone's health or safety. However, if I see you losing focus when lives may be on the line, you will know your mistake and take steps to fix it, or else."

At the front of the class, Nevins paused, then sighed and smiled. "That's the standard speech. It's true, but it's not mine. I first heard it from one Blake Dekker."

I stiffened in my seat.

He looked at us. "You may have heard that name. He used to teach this class. Blake Dekker was also commissioner during the Troubles that occurred after the Earth government collapsed and all communication with that planet ceased." He started to walk up the aisles again. "You may remember, or will have read in your histories, that he held this colony together. Those histories are correct. I served alongside him. He was brave, dedicated, honourable and, above all, ambitious."

And he was commissioner while you're still a captain. Is that why you put such emphasis on the word ambitious?

"I didn't expect him to retire so soon," Nevins added.

My knuckles whitened on the edge of my notes table.

Nevins faced me, and I couldn't decide whether the twitch in his lips was a smile or a smirk. "Can we expect similar great things from his daughter?"

Science tells me that people's eyes do not exert a noticeable physical force on the things they stare at. I have my doubts. I felt everyone staring at me, and I could feel the blush rising up my neck. But I knew the next thing I said would mark me for the rest of cadet school. I couldn't help but be irked. I hadn't asked for this, but what else could I say?

Perhaps it wasn't what I said, but how I said it?

I took a steadying breath. "I'll do my best, senior. Thank you, senior."

Nevins held the stare a moment longer, and I returned it.

Finally, he turned away. "I expect nothing less, Cadet Dekker. I expect nothing less from all of you." He snatched up a marker and stormed the whiteboard like a tank on a trench. "Let's begin."

=+=+=

So began our instruction as police cadets. It was hard, but it wasn't bad. Captain Nevins watched over us. I lived with my celebrity, downplaying it by staying calm and working hard. We lifted weights and practised aerial moves in the gymnasium. We turned the dance and gymnastics of vocational school into martial arts. We learned about our aerial suits and the breathing masks that would save our lives.

Police and rescue work is not the fiery excitement old Earth movies make it out to be, but it's not boring. Four weeks into our drills, they put us on one of the rescue Zeppelins and took us ten clicks from our HAVOC. There, we changed into our aerial suits and masks. We stood to attention, facing doors whose windows opened onto a blank and fluffy horizon while Nevins gave us our last instructions.

"As far as you're concerned," said Nevins, "these masks are an organ of your body. Losing it is as bad as losing a lung." He slapped the mask he was holding. "If ever you are in any part of a craft that is at all likely to experience an envelope breach, you are wearing your mask. You will check the seals and submit them for repair if any flaw is found. Carbon dioxide can be a stealthy killer as well as a vicious one. Any small leak can make you slow, fatigued, and confused, and in this job, if you are any of those things, you are dead. Now, find a partner and help each other put on your mask."

We partnered up. Xiaur, Jin and I slipped our masks on, then helped pull strands of hair back that would have compromised the seals.

"You really should cut your hair shorter," Xiaur admonished as he pushed back my bangs.

I glared at him. "It's regulation! I gave up my ponytail. I'm not doing the buzz-cut."

Jin laughed. "Yeah. They'd better not go messing with our locks, eh, Ginger?" He gave his hair a playful sweep. Xiaur rolled his eyes.

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

Corporal Callister cleared her throat on the radio, directly into our ears. "Is everybody ready?"

There were mumbles from us.

"I mean it!" she shouted, making us flinch. "This is the real deal! Check the status of your seals now! We open the doors in sixty seconds!"

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

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

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

As we stepped out onto a metal platform, the green portions of our uniforms changed colour, shifting to brown, then dark red, then scarlet, further warning that we were in a toxic atmosphere. I resisted the urge to recheck the fit of my mask. This was it. Just keep breathing steadily. In. Out. Do not hyperventilate. Focus.

Peter's voice crackled in our headsets. "All right, cadets. Time to show what you learned indoors. Moodley!"

Jin perked up.

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

Jin pumped his fist. "Yes!"

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

Some of my classmates were insulted to have to do the tasks we'd learned inside over again now that we were 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.

Venusians are not afraid of heights, but the depths can fool you.

As I prepared to leap and grab an overhead girder sticking out the side of the Zeppelin, I looked down at the sulphuric-acid clouds. Suddenly, my perspective changed. One moment, I thought they looked so close I risked burning my foot in them. The next, I realized those clouds were kilometres below. You'd fall for five minutes and still be a speak that could be seen from the Mess Hall windows.

"Hey." Xiaur's baritone whispered in my ear. I looked at him. The explanatory text on my visor told me he'd found a private channel to speak to me.

"Don't freak yourself out," he said.

I took a deep breath, then nodded, and looked away from the clouds. I leapt for the girder, then went hand over hand to the end, touching the finishing button. "Thanks," I replied as Xiaur passed me on the way back.

We switched up after that, joining the group tossing darts. A training Zeppelin pulled alongside our platform and moved back about twenty metres. I spotted Jin in the co-pilot's seat, intently watching the pilot's hands on the controls.

Cadets stood on the Zeppelin's platform, keeping one hand to the ship and the other holding a weight (called a "dart") at the end of a long cable. Swinging the dart, we judged the distance, took aim, and lobbed it across. One side had to catch these darts and reel them in before tossing their own darts back, weaving a rescue net from the trailing cables. Xiaur and I had gone a couple of rounds when movement caught my eye. I found myself looking up.

There was a speck in the sky.

Specks should not be above you, unless they were other Zeppelins. This looked so small, I thought it was a person. And if a person was alone in the sky, they were falling.

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

I pointed. "What's that?"

"What?" Xiaur's voice rasped in my ear. He tried to follow my point. "I don't see anything."

Then the speck did something no person nor Zeppelin could do: it fired a rocket burner.

"What--"

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

"Dekker, what the hell are you doing?" Peter roared, delighted at the chance to ream me out.

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

He looked, and his hands fell to his sides.

It was all over the radio, now.

"What in sulphur's that?"

"That doesn't look like a Martian robot shuttle."

"What's it doing out here?"

Nevins' voice cut through the chatter. "Quiet, all of you! Corporal Mode, report!"

Xiaur identified it, though I could tell he hardly believed it. "It's an asteroid scow."

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

Susan's voice cut in. "No. He's right." She stared up, her shoulders slack.

I looked up and realized Xiaur was right, even if Peter wasn't out of line to doubt him. I still had a copy of Jane's 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 abandoned their mines and formed huge convoys, pooling resources to complete their evacuation. The bulk launched from Ceres and ran to Mars while a smaller group gathered at Vesta on the other side of the Belt and came here. Most didn't make it. The ships that did were now in dead storage in high orbit.

If this was a single ship from the Asteroid Belt, it would have been harder for it to survive.

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

"It's in trouble," I said into the radio. "We need to catch it, or it's going into the clouds. Tie off the cables! We've got to finish the net!"

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

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

He shook his head. "The pilot's probably dead already. Those rockets are firing on automatic."

"What's our job here?" I yelled.

"Cadet, stand down!" Susan snarled. "Let the professionals handle it!"

I rounded on her. "We're ten clicks away from the nearest HAVOC! It'll take too long to muster a rescue crew from there. We're the only ones out here, and we're running out of time!"

Susan glanced at Peter, who looked up at the struggling scow. He tapped his radio. "Captain Nevins, senior? What are your orders?"

Silence stretched. Everyone kept an eye on the struggling scow as it descended. "Come on," I breathed.

Finally, Nevins sighed. "All right, Cadets, this is not a drill. We're going to catch that scow."

My stomach lurched as the engines revved, and we dropped. I imagined that the temperature rose, though I knew rationally that the temperature didn't change that fast. We needed to get far enough under the scow to have time to finish the net to catch it. I wasn't afraid. I wasn't excited, either, though my heart pounded. Maybe it was equal parts of both, knowing that training was over, and we were moving to save someone's life.

If there was somebody alive in there to save.

When we stabilized, the other Zeppelin flashed a light and lobbed a dart.

"There she goes!" Susan shouted. "Dekker, catch it!"

My eyes were already on the dart, its nib rounded to keep from puncturing the Zeppelin's outer skin. Its cable trailed behind as it arced across the distance between us. I traced that arc, seeing how far to reach out...

I leaned above the cloud floor and embraced the falling dart in both arms. Xiaur, who'd already clenched his fingers on the strap across my shoulder blades, hauled back, and I swung up my prize.

"Good work, cadet!" Peter shouted. "Now, tie her off!"

More darts flew, sending cables back and forth across the gap. The net stretched out. I looked up. The asteroid scow was still a few hundred metres above us, but it was falling fast.

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

"More power to the engines," Nevins called. "Everyone, brace!"

I gripped a stanchion as the scow hit our net. The cables sagged. The gap between the two Zeppelins narrowed sharply. The platform pitched. Our engines strained. Nevins' orders rang in our ears, but there was nothing we could do until the engine crews stabilized our altitude.

Finally, the floor stopped pitching. The cables tightened, and the scow rose as our two Zeppelins pulled apart. A look at where we'd tied them off told us everything was holding. Now stable, the scow's rockets stopped firing.

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

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

Xiaur and I glanced at each other, then at the 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 was more excitement than I'd 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. The frills of my aerial suit caught the air, and I flew.

Corporal Mode would correct me to say that I glided, not flew, but it was easy to forget that. The wind buffeted my mask as I rushed towards the scow. Then I tucked in my arms and legs, braced, and landed against the nose of the spaceship. Xiaur's boots clomped as he hit the metal beside me. The window shields weren't engaged, so I could see into the cabin. Someone sprawled against the controls.

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

"Are they alive?" asked Xiaur.

I frowned. "I don't--"

Then the figure stirred. Whoever it was pushed away from the controls 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. Then the figure slumped back onto the console.

"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 room where we can blast the doors--"

"Whoever it is, they're almost unconscious in there," I snapped. "I think they may be out of air. We can't wait to get this scow back to the HAVOC. We must 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 Naido, move to the airlock. Tell me what you see."

Xiaur clambered across the hull of the scow. The grips in the gloves and toes of his aerial suit helped, but he found footholds I could not have seen. Finally, he reached the scow's airlock and pulled the cover off the control panel. He let the cover fall to the clouds below as he peered in.

"Whoever's in there cut most of the security lockouts on the airlock," he said. "I can override the rest. Samantha, is the pilot in a spacesuit?"

I looked again. "Yeah, though I don't know how useful it is, right now."

"Captain Nevins," said Xiair. "Requesting permission to enter."

"Do it," Nevins replied. "You too, Dekker. We're sending people with oxygen."

I crawled across the hull to where Xiaur was keying in codes. The screen flashed green. The door slid back, only to jam halfway. The keypad let out a digital blort as Xiaur tried the codes again. He swore. "There's only enough power to open the inner airlock, now. Are you sure the pilot's in a spacesuit?"

"Yeah," I said. "But he's suffocating. We need to get in and get him oxygen, now."

We squeezed through the half-open door, and Xiaur pulled off the cover of the control panel on the inside airlock door. It flashed green, and the locks disengaged. The lights cut out, then. Xiaur and I looked at each other in the semi-darkness. Then we put our shoulders to the door and pushed. Easing it open just enough, we stepped through.

The scows were built on the cheap; they needed to be to make asteroid mining profitable. The inside was sparse, just one room which served as a control centre, kitchen, and place to sleep. A single cot had been pulled down from its receptacle. The wall around it was festooned with gauges and dials, all slowing nearly empty.

We looked at the bow and saw the pilot slumped over the controls. We stepped closer when suddenly a metal shape rushed at us.

Xiaur and I backed up as a small robot crouched between us and the pilot. It had four legs with knees that poked out on all sides of its body. It had no head, just a cube-like body, though a single camera lens focused on us. It reminded me of a dog from an old Earth video I'd seen.

"Naidoo? Dekker?" Nevins' voice came through the radio. "Have you found the pilot?"

"Yes, senior," said Xiaur. He flinched as the robot swung at him. It trembled, though it didn't look scared. The whirr of gears and motors sounded disturbingly like growl. Xiaur took a step back. "But we have a problem."

The pilot shifted. I heard a muffled cough through the helmet. "Pounder," he wheezed -- a man's voice. "Stand... down."

I frowned at the robot dog. It was named Pounder?

The robot immediately folded up at its knees and sank to the floor. Xiaur and I rushed to the pilot.

He was dressed in the modern form-fitting pressure suit, and he looked to be my age, around eighteen, though I wasn't sure how I could tell. Even slumped at the controls, he looked taller than us, and thinner, like a willow tree.  His arms looked like delicate branches.

He jerked as I touched his arm. He let out a cough, then rolled over, slipping off the console onto the floor. He blinked up at us, then reached up to undo the locks of his helmet.

"Whoa! Whoa!" I grabbed his hands and held them as he struggled. "Take it easy! The air's no good in here."

"She's right." Xiaur came forward, flourishing a silver tank before pushing the pilot onto his back. I looked at the airlock and saw to more cadets staring, watching, not sure what to do with themselves now that they'd delivered the oxygen.

"Just hold on," Xiaur continued. "We've got oxygen."

But the pilot wasn't holding on, he was panicking, letting out a mewling whimper. His arms flailed so much I thought he would break.

Xiaur pulled the covering off the air valves of the pilot's pressure suit and fitted the tank to one of the nozzles. He screwed the tank in until the seal broke, and the air hissed into the pressure suit.

The effect was immediate. The pilot's chest heaved as he gulped in better air. Xiaur pressed a hand to the man's stomach to tell him not to hyperventilate.

The pilot's breath came in slower, longer. He looked at us -- looked at me, carefully. Through his fogged visor, I saw blue eyes, brown-blond hair, and pale skin. His nose was long and narrow. His lips were a dark line, blue with hypoxia.

Slowly, he reached up and touched a knob on his helmet. He spoke. At first, all I could hear was his voice muffled through the helmet before it finally sparked on my radio.

"Can you hear me?" he gasped, his voice soft and wispy. There was an accent I could not place. It reminded me of old Earth country homes and Agatha Christie.

"We can hear you." I clasped his hand to keep him from tuning out of our common frequency. "We've got you. You're safe, now."

"Can you move?" Xiaur asked.

The man tried to sit up, but fell back instantly. "No..." He grunted, and there was pain in that grunt. "I... can't..." Panic rose in his eyes. "I can't... Everything is so... heavy!"

My brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Everything! Everything is so heavy!" He let out a cry. "Help!"

The mysteries piled up. Who was this man? How did he get here? Where did he come from? The Asteroid Belt had been dead for three years, now; there was no way an isolated miner could survive.

"Samantha!" Xiaur stared at a flickering monitor on the console. "This ship launched from Mars."

Mars...

This man was a Martian.

On a planet with three times the gravity.

I shouted into the radio. "We're going to need a med team with an exoskeleton right now!"

"What?" In my ear, Susan sounded incredulous, and I didn't blame her. "Where do you think we're going to get an exoskeleton?"

"Find something or make something," I shouted. "This man's going to need it!"

I found the man's hand and clasped it, gently. "It's okay. We're getting you to a hospital. You're going to be safe. What's your name?"

The man struggled for breath. His eyelids fluttered, but he focused on me.

"Can anybody else hear me?" he wheezed.

I glanced at my visor message, then touched the radio controls. "We're on a private channel."

"Sam," he breathed. "Sam! It's me."

I blinked. "What-- Who--?"

"It's me," he gasped. "It's Pandorian. Please don't tell anybody I'm here."

His eyes closed. His head fell back.

I held him, staring.

Pandorian?! What in sulphur are you doing here?

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