Read The Phobos Maneuver Online
Authors: Felix R. Savage
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Colonization, #Cyberpunk, #First Contact, #Galactic Empire, #Military, #Space Fleet, #Space Opera, #Science fiction space opera thriller
THE PHOBOS MANEUVER
THE SOLARIAN WAR SAGA, BOOK 5
Felix R. Savage
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Alicia Petruzzelli quit her job the day war broke out.
She was on an asteroid 360 million kilometers from Earth, dickering with a bunch of surly settlers over the price of kelp extract. Knowing she’d succeed in securing the price she wanted, she wasn’t giving the negotiations her full attention. A semi-opaque instance of
Existential Threat X
was running in one eye, and several news feeds flashed across the other.
The announcement broke simultaneously on every feed, obliterating Petruzzelli’s fashion- and game-related interest filters.
UN President Declares War on Mars
“Experts from every nation have agreed to classify the PLAN as a distinct threat to humanity. Punitive measures on an interplanetary scale are now being prepared …”
Petruzzelli gasped aloud, giving away her covert feed-surfing. It didn’t matter. Enough of the asteroid settlers had also seen the news on their retinal implants so that it immediately became the sole topic of discussion. This was an entirely unprecedented development. The United Nations had not declared war on anyone or anything in the century and a half it had governed two-thirds of the people in the solar system.
In most circumstances, Belters tended to take a jaded view of the UN. The settlers quickly decided there was nothing to the announcement—it was merely a rote platitude to appease the critics who accused Geneva of doing nothing since the PLAN had slaughtered half the population of the moon the previous year.
But Petruzzelli came from Idaho. She knew better than to think this declaration would have been made lightly.
She inhaled deeply and exhaled swiftly, banishing the tension that had built up in her chest. “Well, what about that kelp extract?”
“We don’t want it.”
“You have to buy it. Your soil analyses show a potassium and boron deficiency.”
They were standing inside a wide tunnel bored lengthwise through a one-kilometer S-type asteroid. The far end of the tunnel was a He3 factory: a couple of old tritium breeder reactors, a lot of rad-shielding. This end—sealed off and filled with atmosphere—was full of tall, spindly people. The spaceborn were like an entirely different species. Seemingly disturbed by her non-spaceborn presence, chickens flew around madly clucking their displeasure—they looked like a different species, too, as gangly as their owners.
Specially constructed grooves spiraling around the sides of the tunnel bristled with winter squash and climbing beans. The yellowed, unhealthy leaves of the plants proved the point of the soil analysis reports. Having spun their home up to 0.15 gees—Luna-equivalent gravity—and achieved a respectable 99% water reclamation rate, the settlers of 159848 Redmayne had won UNSA “Sustainable Space Habitat” certification: they were legal
But to stay that way, they had to continually comply with UN sustainability regulations. And that meant properly maintaining the soil matrix they had kludged up from ash, mine tailings, and various other substrates.
“Compost works wonders. You just have to give it ample time to do its thing,” said the matriarch of the colony.
“Time—like the potassium and boron in your soil—isn’t exactly in abundance at the moment,” Petruzzelli said. “I’m due at Ceres in a week.” She was making this up, of course. “Bottom line, either you buy the kelp extract or I won’t take away your recycling.”
“We’ll just space it, then. No worries,” said a settler youth. “Space is full of garbage, anyway. A little more ain’t gonna hurt nothing.”
“And adding to it is illegal, as it constitutes a hazard to spacefaring vessels. You could, no you will
lose your sustainability certification for that, too.” Petruzzelli ran her hands over her yellow-and-orange-streaked hair. She glanced down the tunnel to the settlers’ tent village. Michael, in his crab-legged mecha, was splarting sacks of garbage together into a snake. He was anticipating the outcome. That didn’t create the greatest impression.
“What doggone choice do we have?” said the matriarch. “Your company owns this asteroid. Yeah, we’re theoretically free to trade with anyone, but no other ships ever call here, thanks to blatant collusion by the likes of you in the recycling sector. So, fine. We’ll take the kelp extract, and whatever other overstock rubbish from Earth you’re trying to shift this month.”
Petruzzelli just wanted to get the hell out of here. “I’ll give you a twenty percent discount on the kelp extract,
I’ll throw in a free sample of carbon nanotube filaments for your 3D printer.
feedstock, perfect for integrated circuit components.”
The ‘deal’ put Kharbage, LLC comfortably in the black, and the settlers not so comfortably in the red. At this rate, they’d never be able to pay off the mortgage on their asteroid. Which was, of course, the point.
Since the UN’s project to terraform Venus had been axed—it had, while it lasted, provided a sweet income for companies with asteroids to flip—Kharbage, LLC, like others in the recycling sector, had scrambled to come up with creative new ways to aggressively monetize its assets.
Petruzzelli donned her EVA suit and flew back to her ship, matching her speed with Michael’s mecha, which was towing the splarted-together snake of garbage sacks. Petruzzelli held the other end of the snake so it wouldn’t bump against the mecha’s ion thruster and get crisped.
“Are we really going back to Ceres?” Michael said.
“Yeah, but first I need to talk to your dad.”
idled ahead of them. The twin-module StarTractor was in fairly desperate need of a complete systems overhaul, which it probably wouldn’t get until its aging fusion reactor terminally broke down. For now, everything worked—just about. Two hab modules rotated around the ship’s nose on the ends of a 150-meter arm. Cargo bays—mostly filled with garbage—ringed the keel like knobby vertebrae. Petruzzelli vectored her mobility pack’s thrust towards Cargo Bay 4, where there was still a smidgen of room, but Michael headed aft towards Engineering & Maintenance. A tug-of-war ensued, with the garbage snake stretching taut between the mecha and the spacesuited woman. The mecha was stronger and emerged the victor. Petruzzelli followed it involuntarily to Engineering & Maintenance, a disk-shaped module nestling in the raised heat-radiation louvers atop the drive shield.
She couldn’t fit through the engineering airlock with all that garbage, so she had to wait outside. The asteroid 159848 Redmayne spun sedately behind her, its hills glinting a strangely beautiful bronze in the light of the distant sun where eons of accumulated dust had been rubbed off. From outside, you wouldn’t know anyone was in there. The settlers kept their ship, a poky little Steelmule, at the far end of the asteroid. They’d cannibalized its reactor to bootstrap their He3 factory.
On the engineering deck, Michael clambered out of his mecha. It was an old mining bot with electromagnets on all four feet, which anchored it to the steel floor. Its smaller gripper clutched a bundle of shrinkfoam. Michael retrieved this and drifted towards Petruzzelli, holding out the bundle as if at any moment it might detonate. “They gave us some eggs.”
“That was nice of them.”
“What are we going back to Ceres for?”
Petruzzelli grasped his shoulders, bringing him down to her eye level. With her red Gecko Docs sealed to the deck, Michael’s toes dangled off the floor. He was ten, and small for his age.
She pulled him in until their foreheads bumped. “You saw the news, kiddo.”
“Yeah. What about it?”
“Look at this.” She sent him a feed item that had come in a couple of minutes ago. A retired Star Force admiral was quoted as saying the Force didn’t have nearly enough pilots. Michael’s pupils flickered from side to side as he read the item on his interface contacts. He was so close that her eyes crossed when she tried to meet his gaze. She smelt his non-stinky child’s sweat, layered with the tang of candy on his breath.
“So what?” he said. “Star Force is a joke. Star
more like, har har
“Kiddo, this shit is about to get real serious, real quick. They need pilots. So I figure I better volunteer before they slap a conscription order on everyone with a pilot’s license.”
She knew there wouldn’t be any conscription, no matter how bad things got. That wasn’t how the UN rolled. She was just afraid she might get left out of the action.
“You might get killed,” Michael said.
“I’ve got plenty of experience at that,” she said. It was a jokey reference to the immersion games she played, which Michael sometimes joined in. But he pulled away from her, scowling.
“My dad won’t let you go.”
“I’m not your dad’s property.” Although in reality sometimes it had felt like it, these last twelve years.
She went up to the bridge to call Adnan Kharbage, who was Michael’s dad and also her boss. Michael followed her, swimming sulkily up the keel transit tube. In the transfer point, she held the elevator door for him. They sank out towards one end of the rotating arm, growing heavier. When they reached the command module, Petruzzelli weighed close to her full 65 kilos again, Michael half of that.
A rare visitor to the bridge, he made a face at Petruzzelli’s clutter. She was a slob, no two ways about it. Also, she was spoiled by the spin gravity. Whereas everything in Michael’s zero-gee domain had to be tied down or stuffed into storage webbing, here she could put things down and find them again later right where she’d left them. Until they got buried under empty food pouches and discarded clothes, anyway. The air was redolent of a damp, dark cellar. As if feeling right at home, fungi speckled the plastic housing of the workstations and dotted in furry clusters in corners where less light shone. Petruzzelli used her sleeve to wipe bolognese sauce off the comms screen.
“Look at all this
Michael complained. He started to collect it, his disgust evident on his face.
“I hate recycling,” Petruzzelli said.
She had to wait ten minutes for Adnan Kharbage to answer her ping. Four of them were the signal delay to Ceres—two minutes there, two back—and the other six were, she speculated, the amount of time needed for Adnan to finish up and roll off his fifth wife. His appearance on the screen supported this guess. His hairy man-boobs spilled out of a loosely belted dressing-gown. He scowled at her across 36 million kilometers, saturnine and cow-licked, like his son, but older and fatter.
“What the hell, Petruzzelli? It’s the middle of the night.”
“We’re returning ahead of schedule,” Petruzzelli said. She had computed the fastest possible course to Ceres—or rather, instructed the hub to compute it—and initiated their acceleration burn while she waited for Adnan to pick up. She felt a sideways pull on her body, which decreased but did not vanish as the rotator arm swung downwards on its gimbals. This was meant to align the spin gravity with their axis of thrust. Unfortunately, the arm had jammed halfway, so for the next eight days the decks of the command module would seem to slope uphill. Michael chased snack wrappers across the floor, oblivious.
On the screen, Adnan Kharbage pottered around the kitchen of his ski chalet on Ceres. He ground coffee beans, poured them into a French press, and dropped slices of real-looking bread into a toaster. Petruzzelli’s mouth watered. She cracked one of the fresh eggs from 159848 Redmayne on the edge of her desk and slurped it straight from the shell.
A wall screen in Adnan Kharbage’s kitchen showed the same talking heads Petruzzelli was watching herself. They were saying the things she had heard them say two and a half minutes ago—she was slightly closer to the center of the solar system. Adnan chuckled when they brought up the PLAN’s atrocities on Luna the previous year.
Rage boiled up in Petruzzelli’s belly. “That’s right, laugh,” she said. “You’re probably already figuring out how to make a buck off this. As for me, I’m going to join Star Force, if they’ll have me.”
She meant to leave it at that, but after a few seconds, her long-suppressed sense of soiled righteousness burst forth with cold fury.
“I’ve had just about e-fucking-nough of preying on the weak, ripping off settlers in the name of righteous sustainability, and helping you exploit information asymmetries in the outer Belt real estate market. The recycling business used to be an essential service. Now it’s just a fig leaf for bullshit predatory lending practices. Which is to say, I quit. Sir.”