The twin shipyards of Callisto stood side by side on the hemisphere of the moon that faced permanently away from Jupiter. The sun was only the brightest star in the endless night, the wide smear of the Milky Way brighter by far. All along the ridges of the craters, harsh white work lights glared down onto buildings, loaders, scaffolds. The ribs of half-built ships arced up over the regolith of stone dust and ice. Two shipyards, one civilian and one military, one Earth-based and one owned by Mars. Both protected by the same anti-meteor rail-gun defenses, both dedicated to building and repairing the vessels that would take humanity out to the new worlds beyond the rings when and if the fight on Ilus got worked out.
Both in a lot more trouble than they guessed.
Filip slid forward, the rest of his team close behind him. The suit LEDs had been gouged out, the ceramic plating scoured until nothing was smooth enough to cast a reflection. Even the heads-up display was dimmed almost to the point of invisibility. The voices in Filip’s ears – ship traffic, security feeds, civilian chatter – were picked up on passive. He listened while transmitting nothing in return. The targeting laser strapped to his back was powered down. He and his team were shadows among shadows. The faint countdown timer in the left of his visual field passed the fifteen-minute mark. Filip patted air barely thicker than vacuum with an open palm, the Belters’ physical idiom to move forward slowly. Around him, his team followed.
High in the void above them, too distant to see, the Martian naval vessels guarding the shipyard spoke in clipped, professional tones. As thinly as their fleet had been stretched, they had only two ships in orbit. Probably only two. It was possible that there were others hidden in the black, hugging their own waste heat and shielded from radar. Possible but unlikely. And life, as Filip’s father said, was risky work.
Fourteen minutes, thirty seconds. Two secondary timers appeared beside it, one with a forty-five second counter, the other with two minutes.
“Transport ship Frank Aiken, you are cleared to approach.”
“Message received, Carson Lei,” Cyn’s familiar growl came. Filip could hear the old Belter’s smile in the words. “Coyos sabe best ai sus bebe come we low?”
Somewhere up there, the Frank Aiken was painting the Martian ships with innocuous ranging lasers set at the same frequency as the one strapped to Filip’s own back. When the Martian comm officer spoke, there was nothing in his voice that showed fear.
“Don’t copy you, Frank Aiken. Please repeat.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Cyn laughed. “You fine upstanding gentlefolk know any good bars a poor Belter crew could get a drink once we get to the surface?”
“Can’t help you, Frank Aiken,” the Martian said. “Maintain course.”
“Sabez sa. Solid as a stone, straight as a bullet, us.”
Filip’s crew topped the crater ridge, looking down at the no-man’s-land of the Martian military yard; it was just as he had expected it to be. He picked out the warehouses and supply depots. He pulled off the targeting laser, set the base into the dirty ice, and powered it up. The others, spread along the line wide enough that none of the guards would be out of all their sight lines, did the same. The lasers were old, the tracking platforms strapped to them salvaged from a dozen different sources. Before the tiny red LED on its base turned green, the first of his two secondary timers reached zero.
The security alert tritone sounded on the civilian channel, followed by a woman’s anxious voice.
“We’ve got a runaway loading mech on the field. It’s… ah, shit. It’s heading for the meteor array.”
The panic and alarm cascaded in his ears as Filip moved his team along the rim of the crater. Thin puffs of dust rose around them and didn’t fall, widening instead like a mist. The loader mech, failing to respond to overrides, trundled across the no-man’s-land and into the wide eyes of the meteor defense cannons, blinding them, if only for a few minutes. Four Martian marines emerged from their bunker, as protocol demanded. Their powered armor let them slide over the surface like they were skating on ice. Any one of them could kill his whole team and suffer nothing worse than a moment’s pity. Filip hated them all and each one individually on principle. The repair crews were already scrambling for the damaged array. The whole thing would be back in order within the hour.
Twelve minutes, forty-five seconds.
Filip paused, looking back at his team. Ten volunteer soldiers, the best the Belt had to offer. Apart from himself, none of them knew why the mission to raid the Martian supply depot was important or what it was leading to. All of them ready to die if he told them to, because of who he was. Because of who his father was. Filip felt it in his belly and in his throat. Not fear, pride. It was pride.
Twelve minutes, thirty-five seconds. Thirty-four. Thirty-three. The lasers they’d placed came to life, painting the four marines, the bunker with the backup team, the perimeter fences, the workshops, and the barracks. The Martians turned, their armor so sensitive that even the gentle caress of invisible beams of light was noticed. As they moved they lifted their weapons. Filip saw one recognize the team, gun shifting away from the lasers and toward them. Toward him.
He caught his breath.
Eighteen days before, a ship – Filip didn’t even know which one – out in the Jovian system somewhere had made a hard burn, topping out at ten, maybe fifteen gs. At the nanosecond specified by the computers, the ship had released a few dozen lengths of tungsten with four disposable, short-burn rockets at the center of mass and cheap single-frequency sensors tied to them. They were barely complicated enough to be called machines. Six-year-old children built things more sophisticated every day, but accelerated as they were to one hundred and fifty kilometers per second, they didn’t need to be complex. Just shown where to go.