The ramshackle tramp freighter hovered no more than three hundred meters above the clustered domes on the asteroid. While a clumsy figure on the craft's hull busied itself with some goldbergian contraption, the pilot made occasional attitude adjustments. The trim jets fired very nearly as clumsily as the pressure suited figure maneuvered. A radio voice crackled in the person's headset. "Comrade Andrew, are you prepared?"
'Comrade Andrew' swore as his crunched fingers between a hull fitting and his odd device. "Almost. But I fear I'll have to operate the gun from here."
"What's wrong with the remote circuit?" asked the ship's pilot.
"Uh... Well... The control cable doesn't reach far enough." Inside the helmet Andrew flushed with embarrassment.
"Very well, Comrade. Destiny will guide you. Let me know when the gun is ready."
No more than half a kilometer away, another suited figure listened to this exchange and laughed silently. His comm transmitter was disabled, so he waved to get his partner's attention.
The second dark suited figure nodded, an exaggerated motion visible through his bulky worksuit. He held a finger up to his helmet and gestured in little circles. Crazy. But dangerous even so. The two men fired coldgas handjets and maneuvered closer to the enemy vessel. Between them they towed a largish canister with a polymer extension; a flashbulb, a miner's expendable high-energy x-ray source. It was draped in the same dark fabric as the workers' suits. They were virtually invisible in the asteroid's shadow.
When they had closed to fifty meters, the men fired jets and brought their cargo to a halt over the ship. One man carefully aligned the flashbulb by eye, pointing the business end of the device at the life support pod. When he was satisfied with his aim, he extended a tiny antenna from the rear and toggled a switch. He took one last sighting on his target and gave his partner a thumbs-up.
The other man pulled a flashlight-sized cylinder from his suit harness. It dangled a short audio cable, which he jacked into his suit comm. He pointed the laser comm at a hab dome below on the rock. "Hello, control."
Invisible laser light bathed the two floaters. "Hey, Joey," returned the voice of 'control.' "You two set there?"
"Yeah. We're ready. How 'bout the others?" While Joey and his partner positioned their flashbulb, seven other teams had labored at identical tasks, bracketing the target.
"You're the last to check in, dude. Go ahead and clear the area. We'll give the clowns another chance to go away, then we zap 'em."
"Cool." Joey nodded to himself. "Good shooting. We're moving back to the port now. Have at 'em." He killed the directional comm set and waved to his partner. They jetted away from the danger area. The suit radios crackled again as they moved back to base.
"Hello, pirate," called control.
"We are not pirates," the pirate's pilot replied immediately. "We are freedom fighters. Defenders of the People's Revolution. We..." In the ship's control room the People's Pilot gestured grandly. And brushed a switch. "Oops." Attitude jets flared again. And outside the foolishly untethered gunman was cast off into free space.
"Um, Marco," Comrade Andrew called out to the pilot, only to be ignored.
Port Smith control spoke again. "Yeah, well oops this. We aren't playing your game. No moola. Go rob someone else." The voice hardened. "Clear Port Smith space. Now. Or we wipe you."
Marco swore colorfully. At least he did something well. "Comrade Andrew," he called. "Open fire!"
Below in control, someone spoke. "Not freakin' likely." A thumb depressed a button, and eight flashbulbs went off as one.
Comrade Pilot Marco never felt a thing. But drifting several away, out of the common area of the lethal beams, Comrade Andrew caught the fringe of a beam and felt a wave of heat. And realized he felt ill. "Hey, Marco," he radioed. "What was that?" Silence answered. "Marco?"
A stranger's voice answered. "Well, I'll be jammed. One of you idiots survived?"
"Who's that?" Andrew demanded. "Where's Marco? What's..."
"Oh, hush," returned the voice. "Marco was just guesta honor at a barbecue." It paused. "Ah, there you are. How'n the flippin' heck didja manage to toss yerself off the ship? No matter. You hang tight. I'll send someone to bring ya in."
"But..." the sick terrorist began.
"I insist," the voice said coldly.
Billy McKeever looked at his son and shook his head. Even at twenty-five years, Andrew bore a petulant look more befitting a child.
"But, Dad," whined Andrew, "you can't be serious!"
The older man settled down onto a deeply cushioned sofa; an obvious luxury in given the low rotational 'gravity' of the habitat. He replied, "Yes; as a matter of fact, I am serious. You're an embarrassment; a liability." He frowned and made an abrupt chopping gesture. "I won't put up with it anymore."
"Dad, all I need is just one more chance..." began the long-haired younger man.
Billy sneered. "Again? So you can do what?" He pulled out a datapad and fingered the screen. "On your fifteenth birthday, you said you wanted to move out on your own. I co-signed a loan so you could get an apartment and pay your life support fees. Instead, you gambled it away, and ran up a debt. I paid it off so you wouldn't get posted as a defaulter in the town square."
"That wasn't my fault," Andrew explained "The game had to rigged. My system was perfect..."
"Your system was a scam. You actually tried to bring in your own dice. Idiot." The elder McKeever tapped the pad again. "Then you had the brilliant idea of buying a franchise from the Confidential Comm network." He closed his eyes briefly, and rubbed his temples. "And tried to monitor private letters so you could blackmail your customers."
Andrew rose from his chair. "It wasn't blackmail! I merely pointed out that their lines weren't as secure as they thought. I offered to sell..."
"What you had already contracted to sell, you fool!" Billy shouted. "Be glad you only hit individual accounts. Some of the Corps wouldn't have settled out of court." He shivered. "And some would... but not for money." He looked at his scruffy son in puzzlement. "It's as if you never understood how things work in the world."
"What's to understand? It's a dog eat dog world," answered Andrew. "I'm just trying to be top dog."
"Haven't you ever heard of enlightened self-interest, boy?" asked Billy. "I know you have; I run my business by it. In the long run, you don't get anywhere by screwing your customers. Sheesh!"
"Oh, come on, old man!" Andrew sneered. "Customers. Bah! They're sheep; I'm the wolf."
Billy McKeever glanced at his datapad again. "Which, I suppose, explains the next couple of incidents." He closed his eyes again, and hung his head. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at Andrew. "Piracy, for god's sake. I set you up with an excellent long range prospecting stake, and you go play Blackbeard."
"It wasn't piracy! I was going to pay for the oxy..."
Billy cut him off, "Sure, once those miners caught you."
"Darn it, I had a right to that oxygen! Resources should be allocated by need and utility," Andrew pontificated. "My reserves were expended..."
"Because you left a feeder valve open," Billy supplied.
Andrew continued as if he had not spoken. "...and those miners had more than they needed. It was mine by right. Property is an illusion, anyway."
Billy stared in disbelief. "How did I manage to raise a little communist?" he asked rhetorically. "You're lucky they didn't kill you and be done with it. Do you know how much it cost me to hush that up?"
Andrew stood silently defiant.
"A lot. And more than just money; I lost credibility." He waved the young man down. "Sit down. We're not done yet. Sit!"
Andrew sat, redfaced. Equally redfaced, Billy referred to the pad. "And the devil only knows what you were up to for the years you disappeared. You sold some ore loads; I hoped that meant you'd finally learned. That maybe you were working." He peered into Andrew's eyes. "But I suspect not." Again, the datapad. "So tell me, boy; what insanity made you decide to be a revolutionary?"
"Spoken like a true reactionary capitalist!" spouted Andrew.
"Oh, shut up," said Billy. "My penchant for 'capitalism' is the only thing that's kept you alive all these years." He gave his son a look of scorn. "And what do think you're rebelling against? We left the government behind on Earth. If you don't like the lifestyle in one habitat, move to another. Heck, I know of two Marxist communities even. Set up by some socialist reactionaries from Russia; couldn't deal with the open market there."
"They sold out their heritage!" Andrew responded. "Crass materialists who demand an exorbitant entry fee."
"Well, they've got to support the community somehow." Billy grinned momentarily. "Wouldn't have you, huh?" Andrew mumbled something inaudibly in reply.
"Is that why you turned to extortion and terrorism?" Billy asked. "To get the immigration fee?"
"To finance the revolution," Andrew muttered quietly, looking at the dark pile carpet.
Billy sneered again. "So. In order to pay for the revolution to free people from their chosen lifestyles, you threaten to kill them."
"I was only going to punch a few holes in their dome." Andrew said defensively. "It would've only inconvenienced them."
"Inconvenience? You had a twenty millimeter chain gun!" Billy exploded. "You could have depressurized the entire base!"
"Yeah? Well, they had weapons of mass destruction!" Andrew challenged.
"What, a couple of subkiloton nuclear devices? Those are for moving large ice masses," dismissed Billy. "They never even used them."
"Then what did they hit my ship with?" Andrew demanded.
Billy grinned. "Flashbulbs. Eight of `em; at darn near point blank range. Flew out on jet packs, and you dipsticks never saw `em."
Andrew looked confused. "Huh? What're flashbulbs?"
Billy's eyebrows lifted. "Boy, don't you have any clue of how the world operates?" He shrugged. "Guess that proves you never mined those ore loads you sold."
"I don't understand," Andrew said plaintively.
"So I see," Billy replied scornfully. "Flashbulbs are a standard prospecting tool. EMP-fired high power x-ray sources for examining a rock's interior structure," he explained slowly and carefully. "You're lucky you didn't fry along with the others."
"They used radiation weapons? And you approve? But they killed Marco..." Andrew responded in horrified wonder.
Billy smiled nastily. "Approve? Dipstick. Didn't you know my company had people... offices at Port Smith? Approve, heck; it was my suggestion!"
"You wanted to kill me?" Andrew screeched.
"Oh, heck. I didn't even know it was you at the time; just some terrorist." He gave his son an evil grin. "If I'd know it was you... Well, considering your past history, I'd told `em to toss ou a couple more."
"My God, Dad!"
"Don't Dad me, Andrew," Billy instructed angrily. "You resigned from the family when you opted for initiated force as a way of life."
"You'd have killed me over a stupid principle?" demanded the young man.
Billy shook his head. "More like, as a matter of principle. That, and self-defense." He stared sternly at the unrepentant man. "Tell me again; how is it that you survived the flashbulbs? Why weren't you with the others in the main cabin?"
"Ah... I... uh," stuttered Andrew. "I was outside the ship."
"Yes. To operate the gun." Billy stared intently into Andrew's eyes. "You were the one who was personally going to do the killing. You little son of a..." He was interrupted by a knocking at the door. Both heads turned to the sound. "You stay sitting right there," Billy directed. He rose, and walked to the door. "I think your ride is here." Andrew blanched.
Billy slid the door open, and looked at the four men standing there. "Good afternoon, Mr. Rasmussen, gentlemen," he greeted them. "I think he's ready for you." He stepped aside and waved them into his home.
"Thank you, sir," replied the man in front as he came in. He looked at Andrew in disgust. "Have you explained his options?" Rasmussen asked Billy.
"Not yet," Billy replied. "I'm not sure he deserves it. Why not tell him what you plan for him." He smirked at his son.
"Dad! You can't give me to them!" Andrew cried. "It's slavery. They'll kill me!"
"Oh, no... Nonsense," Billy and Rasmussen began. They looked at each other and smiled. Rasmussen deferred to Billy. "If they wanted you dead, they woulda just 'found' yur corpse on your pirate ship, too. Boy, you heard the arbitrator. You owe restitution. Every one of the four hundred-twenty-three inhabitants of Port Smith filed suit against you." He pulled out the datapad again. He tapped at the display, and looked. "You owe a total of twenty-one point fifteen million for threatened loss of life, eight point four six million for mental anguish, and an even 3 million for estimated loss of revenues due to your little adventure. You get to work it off." He turned to Rasmussen, and said, "How `bout telling young Mr. McKeever all about his new job, sir?"
"Certainly," he replied. Then, a bit vindictively, to Andrew, "Well, Andrew; you're going to be working at our experimental uranium processing plant." He smiled gleefully. "You may have heard of the project. We're developing ways to refine and separate uranium without the need for various slurries and caustic chemicals." He paused, and then explained, "We're trying to devise a purely thermal process; completely solar. We have about 10 square kilometers of mylar-aluminum collectors," he added proudly.
"Hey, man; I don't know anything about uranium processing.." Andrew objected.
"That's quite all right. Due to the radioactivity and the extreme heat of the processing, it's mostly automated. Very dangerous, you know." His smile widened. "But for those unexpected things that spring up in any experimental process... Well, we need someone onsite, in person. You just volunteered."
"You can't do this!" Andrew yelled. "I'll..."
Billy broke in, "The arbitrator already approved it. Given the hazards of the position, your salary is set accordingly high: two million per year. And a point oh-five percent share of any profits from the refinery during your term of employment." Billy smiled mirthlessly. "You should be payed off in about twelve or thirteen years." The five men laughed as Andrew stared in shock.
"Except that I'll be dead by then! Dad..." pleaded Andrew.
"Don't call me Dad, punk," Billy replied. "But you do have an option." Billy's eyes lit with unholy glee.
Warily, Andrew asked, "What kind of option?"
Rasmussen spoke, "Exile."
Billy elaborated. "For the sake of your dear departed mother, I've arranged an employment option. Mr. Rasmussen and the arbitrator approved it, as well. So its your choice."
Seemingly made nervous by the fact that the five were still smiling, Andrew asked, "What's the other choice, then?"
"You go to Earth," Billy said flatly.
"I don't get it..." Andrew said.
"Well, we can't exile you anywhere else," Billy explained. "Your face is known virtually everywhere in free space; no one'll have you. So you go to Earth for fifteen years to work off your debt."
"Earth? That's crazy!" Andrew exclaimed. "I can't go there; the gravity'll kill me!"
"Nah," Rasmussen put in. It's just three times Martian grav. You've been there. You'll get used to it." He chuckled. "And we'll be generous; for every two million you can come up with, we'll shave a year off your sentence."
Andrew sputtered, "But... but... Where... How am I going to get money? What'll I do there?"
Billy and Rasmussen chuckled again, and Billy said, "I pulled some strings and found you a job."
"Doing what?" Andrew asked suspiciously.
Billy grinned. "Well, it wasn't easy finding anything you were qualified to do. But fortunately, the U.S. still recognizes you as a citizen, since you were born there." He noted Andrew's puzzled looked. "Yep, we came up when you were less than a year old. Back when the mining companies started offering pioneer and prospector stakes." He shrugged. "Anyway, you can pass for American. So we got got you a job with a state government."
Andrew, clearly horrified, shouted, "What?"
"Yep, it was the only thing we could find that you knew anything about." Rasmussen watched with a twinkle in his eye as Billy went on. "In fact, given your background, I'd say you're uniquely qualified."
"Uuuh..." Andrew muttered questioningly, suspicion filing his eyes.
"Ohio Department of Taxation," said Billy.
"You're going to be a revenuer," supplied Rasmussen, with a wide grin.