August 2, 2184: Industrial Platform (Low Orbit) 380A/X [Reg. EarthArc Shipping, Inc.]
Ed Wallace kept his eyes on the screens as the Transport made its final approach to docking. It had slowed to an almost imperceptible crawl: final docking would not be a matter of letting the docking cradles stop its momentum, but of the automated piloting systems bringing it to a full stop by its own thrusters, at the exact moment it reached the point of contact. Without such care, the momentum behind a ship carrying 20,000 standard transport containers would be enough to crush right through the docks, and nudge the platform itself out of orbit, at even the slowest speeds.
Ed wasn’t worried. Accidents could happen but were rare enough that he didn’t spare any thought for the possibility. He’d react if something happened. He did not expect it to.
Platform 380A/X wasn’t entirely automated, but the onboard crew was slight compared to the size of its onboard factories. A rotating crew of 200, working three months onboard and three months back home in the Colonies, operated a factory complex that would likely have employed several thousand in pre-spaceflight, pre-automation days. That was how an offworld population of forty-six million could run the entire industrial base for a global civilization of ten billion.
So as the clock dropped below sixty seconds to docking, Ed watched the screens without concern. Multiple camera views showed the almost-in-place Transport: one an overview of the whole docking cradle, the rest focused tightly on the target reticules that verified its position. Other screens showed instrument readouts, and self-maintenance checks from the systems that would soon begin unloading the cargo containers and sending them off to the various factories. All green. Yet others had reports from the docking crew, who had their own monitors and green lights to observe, and they also reported green.
All as expected, all routine, all exactly the same as the hundreds of other dockings that happened day after day, on 380A/X as well as all the other platforms throughout the Earth-Moon system.
Contact. Not even a nudge of vibration, the docking had been perfect. A new set of green lights appeared on the screens, and the camera views showed the docking clamps swinging down to secure the Transport in the cradle. Conveyors and cranes unfolded themselves and closed in on the loaded ship like a school of hungry sharks circling a whale (Ed was a fan of Terran nature programs, and one on sea life had come across the nets last week). It would take only an hour or so for the systems to completely dismantle the array of 20,000 shipping containers and whisk them off to their destination. Not much more than that to assemble a new array, containing the finished products the ship would take back Earthward.
At his right, Ed’s assistant Marty Cooper rattled off a series of routine instructions, momentarily distracted from his conspiracy theories about Terran nukes. The intercom speakers carried a babble of other voices as the receiving crews went to work directing the parts of the process that wouldn’t direct themselves.
Marty turned, about to say something to Ed.
It was as much a feeling as a sound: Ed felt it press his eardrums, at the same moment he heard the deep, sudden bark of noise. His chair shook beneath him and there were rattling sounds in the control room. His coffee cup toppled off the counter.
“What the dust—?”
Marty said, “The screen!”
Red lights had blossomed on the monitor screens but it was the camera overview Marty pointed at. Ed looked and saw billowing clouds of gas venting along one side of the transport. It looked like one of the containers had ruptured, damaging several others in the process. Yes, there he could see a couple of containers with their sides peeled open and still venting. One of the platform’s cargo cranes, in the process of locking on when the blast happened, also showed visible damage.
“Dust, some idiot screwed up loading,” Ed said. The initial moment of confusion passed. He and his crew knew how to handle this, it was just the sort of accident that no tech could ever rule out completely. Murphy’s Law was still the first principle of engineering.
Marty got on the intercom. “Emergency! We have an explosion at the docking cradle. Halt unloading procedures. Receiving crew, report any casualties and damage.”
Ed studied the screens. The explosion had vented the containers to open space, it wasn’t likely there’d be a fire. But he added to Marty’s instructions, “Fire suppression team on standby. Security team be ready to assist.”
The first stirrings of anger simmered in his thoughts. There were any number of possible causes for the emergency: someone had loaded volatiles without properly securing them, or in a mislabeled container. Or they’d put pressurized cargo into a container rated only for vacuum, or had failed to notice signs of impending failure on a container they should have withdrawn from service, or— any of a dozen possibilities. Time to figure out the cause later, right now Ed only knew that someone had screwed up, and he didn’t know yet if that had gotten some of his crew injured or killed.
Then he saw something else on the screen. Something that made no sense at all. He leaned in closer. “What’s that?”
It looked like human figures were spilling out of the damaged containers. A flash of horror— people were in there, killed by explosive decompression— and then he realized the figures all wore EVA suits, and moved with purpose, some clambering along handholds down the sides of the cargo array, others moving into open space, but not drifting: they were on thruster packs, heading for the platform’s structure.
A second explosion, and Ed didn’t see anything on the screen to match it. “Where was that?”
Marty punched frantically at the screens, paging through camera views. He finally got a picture of more human figures pouring into a corridor. No spacesuits this time, that was—
“That’s the airlock corridor,” Marty said. “Maintenance access to the Transport’s control rooms. There shouldn’t be anyone there, it’s an automated ship.”
“They had a boarding crew there,” Ed realized. “And I just pulled the dusted security team away to help with the explosion! Bloody dusted hell, this is an attack, it’s pirates or— call it in!”
Marty called up the com screen but hesitated with his fingers over the coding buttons. “Call who?”
“What are you talking about, call—” Ed broke off as he realized what Marty was asking.
Piracy and smuggling were ongoing problems. There were corners of the world where organized crime cartels wielded more power than recognized local governments, and raids on shipping were far from unusual. A raid on a factory platform was rare but not unheard of. It was the reason Earth still had a military, even a century after unification.
The Terran military. Procedure said that faced with a “security breach” they should call the emergency channel that would call Terran military units to their aid. But Ed and everyone in his crew called themselves citizens of the newborn United Offworld Colonies.
The UOC did not yet have any such agency.
Ed still figured he had pirates to deal with. Probably they saw the opportunity that current political events had provided. That didn’t help tell him what to do about it. He found himself suddenly desperate to pass the buck. “Call Colonial Traffic Control,” he said. “And then call the dispatch office at EarthArc. It’s their platform, maybe they know what to do.”
While Marty made the calls, Ed got on his screens and started closing emergency bulkheads, hoping to slow down the advance of the raiders. If they were pirates, they’d look for the easy score and then a fast getaway. They probably had shuttles hidden somewhere on the Transport, among the stacks of cargo containers.
How did they get into the containers without planetside security seeing them?
Ed brushed the question aside. Not important right now. Limiting the damage they could do, the amount they could steal, that was what he had to focus on.
But then his screen stopped responding. He was locked out. “They’ve hacked us,” he said. “They must have got to a terminal down in the airlock area.”
“How could they do that without EarthArc’s security codes?” Marty asked.
Ed looked up at the camera views. The boarders in the airlock corridor had passed out of view. He had no idea where they were headed. But on the dock view, the initial swirl of vented gases had cleared. Spacesuited figures were at work across the outside of the Transport. All the cranes and conveyors had halted. Other raiders clambered over them. Ed could see their EVA suits, see the insignia they bore.
“They’re not pirates,” he said slowly, the truth beginning to sink in. “It’s going to do no good trying to call the Terran military for help. They’re who just attacked us.”
TO BE CONTINUED