Loading the Sling by Brandon Nolta – FREE STORY


I wasn’t born a Belter, but I’m probably about to die one. Maybe someone will come looking for my carcass when the shooting stops, but it’s not a good bet. There’s a lot of us out here, and who cares about one more corpse in the dark?

For posterity’s sake, my name is Ronan Daley, ore transpo specialist for the Osbourne-Chu Collective, employee number LX39942-A. Until today, I was part of a mining team stripping a hunk of iron and beryllium designated 32661 Hypatia. Everybody does everything on a mining crew, but my main job was slinging rock. Load the ore container into the mass driver, spin up the coils, plot a course, and let fly. Not that hard, long as you keep the data flowing so trajectories stay updated. Pretty routine.

Routine ended when the Blobs swooped in. They’ve got an official name recorded somewhere, something less offensive, but we call them Blobs. What they are is people, engineered completely without a rigid skeleton. They can stretch and flex into extensions as thick as a trunk line or as small as a finger. A Blob envirosuit stretches with its occupant, and can manipulate surface charges to control machines, defend the wearer, or propel itself in a rolling motion. Watching a Blob race along a surface vertical with respect to you is like watching water roll down a leaf.

I was down a hole when the fighting started, trying to excavate a stuck bit. Lucky me. Comms are supposed to stay open, but I swear a lot when I work, and most of my cohorts came from more prudish colonies, so they always tuned my volume way low. I didn’t hear the first warnings, if there were any.

By the time I came up into silence, the wave had come and gone, leaving me and dead bodies grappled to a dead world. Blobs weren’t interested in the rock or us; they just didn’t want anybody at their backs as they pressed outward to the larger colonies on the Belt’s edge. I used to know all the reasons why the Blobs were saber-rattling, not that it matters now.

It didn’t take long to add it up. My entire crew dead, perforated at close range and left to desiccate in vacuum. The communications array was scrap, as were the jumpship engines. Given all the chatter I wasn’t hearing, no point in shouting for help. I had air for a long while, food and water in the jumpship, and not much else.

But they left the mass driver alone.

After I got over the shock—I’d seen dead bodies before, but it still rattles to see someone you know cold and pale—I decided to do what I could with what I had. Revenge was my first thought, but I didn’t know where the Blobs were or came from, and the mass driver’s targeting system won’t accept “no idea” as a destination. No wild last stand for Mama Daley’s first and favorite son, then.

Escape, though, was still an option. Rigging an ore jenny with a seat and extra tanks is an official Belter pastime, and even at a standard 1g toss, I could probably get to Ceres alive. Within shouting distance would work. Of course, if the Blobs saw me tooling across the sky, they’d take a few shots on principle. Unless they had other things to do.

I thought about that for a moment.

Normal Belter funeral custom is to strip the bodies, wrap them in whatever was handy, and launch them to the Sun. Early days, it was the recycle tank, and sometimes still is; we’re not sentimental about the dead. I needed my colleagues’ suit comps more than they needed the last ride home, so I synced up everybody’s suit comp and got them modeling all the trajectories I’d need, while I grabbed an empty jenny and set to turning it into a Belter Kon-Tiki.

After stripping the usable air tanks from my compadres, I retrieved the spares from the jumpship and jury-rigged some attitude jets in the jenny. A ping told me calculations were done, so I loaded them into the mass driver and started it up. While the loader filled jenny upon jenny with the last ore my team would mine, I maneuvered my ride into the caboose feeder position and climbed in, strapping up as securely as I had time.

I pulled up the HUD while the feed line ground and shuddered my ride up to the coils. Without knowing exactly where the Blobs were, I had no hope of hitting them, but I could make educated guesses. Not much work to pull up what asteroids were around, how close they were, and estimate the reaction a full jenny at top acceleration ramming a flying island might occasion. A gentle tugging told the swing of the coil track as the mass driver swung into my calculated plot.

“Hell, meet handbasket,” I said, and keyed the launch. Acceleration pressed me back, then released as I reached cruising v. Even knowing where to look, my scanner couldn’t pick up much at highest power. If there was an occasional flash of light among the darkened asteroids, it was almost certainly my imagination.

I’d have to settle for knowing the jennys would meet their targets, spraying ore and metal everywhere at ship-piercing speeds, altering orbits a nudge here, a spot there. Individually, not much, but in aggregate, navigation would be trickier for a while, and more dangerous. Behind it all, me and my jenny speeding along.

There’s no happy ending to tell yet. As I record this, I’m still flying toward Ceres and a reception I can’t predict. Maybe the Blobs have it, maybe not. Maybe I’ll get shot out of the sky. Maybe one of these tanks is faulty. Even if all my calculations were correct and all the readouts are right, it’ll be close, and I might have to get out and walk.

Whatever. I’ll figure something out.



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