After Marqus escaped the constricting culture of his home habitat and joined the Coronado‘s crew, the ship set off on a mission promising huge profits: harvesting helium from the sun to deliver to the Venus terraforming project. But the promise of profit existed because Venus’ enemies, forces from the moons of Jupiter, hunted and destroyed helium haulers around the solar system.
Forces who might control a spy onboard Coronado.
Could Coronado survive skimming the sun? Could the ship sell its valuable cargo in time? Most of all, could Marqus prove he belonged on board to the rest of the crew—and himself?
Sample of “Selling Short”
The freighter Coronado’s conference room had a hardwood floor and leather chairs. Reflected light smeared over the polished ebony table as Marqus sat. No one else had arrived yet. His hands slid over the wood, and six hundred yards below the floor the ship’s fusion drive rumbled. He smiled a giddy grin. New Liberia, his home, five space habitats orbiting Saturn’s moon Titan, lay two hours behind the ship. He lived his own life now, not the one his parents wanted him to live.
Unfamiliar bodies and voices flowed into the room. The chair to his right squeaked, and he turned to see Raveena. “Hi, Marqus,” she said. “Welcome aboard.”
“Thanks.” In the flesh, she looked like the avatar she’d shown in his Virtual job interview a week before. South Asian, Raveena had a long narrow nose and thin lips. She wore a navy-blue jumper and straight black hair in a pageboy cut.
“Settled in?” she asked.
He nodded, and glanced up as more people entered the room. “I’ve been in my cabin a few hours.”
“One of your robots unpacked my things.” The ship had fifteen robots, like pygmy centaurs with tiger-stripe plastic skin, three feet long and two feet to the shoulder. They performed service and maintenance tasks; the one that helped Marqus had climbed the walls on its gecko feet to hang his clothes bags.
“You must have brought a lot, if it took you so long.”
“Not really.…” Sweat trickled on his nape. In his cabin, he’d installed and primed a censorship program Captain Garcia had purchased: Sun, helium, Venus.… He couldn’t tell her that.
“Have you met everyone?”
“In Virtual, yes.” Eight other people sat around the table, and chatted amongst themselves. Sonoma, a pale woman, talked with Naseem, a slender Arab. The latter glanced at Marqus, with a look his ancestors had fixed on black men during slave raids centuries ago. Marqus turned away, but watched Sonoma through one of the ship’s cameras. She had high cheekbones and straight red hair. He’d snever seen a woman like her. She leaned toward Naseem, and parted her full lips in a shared laugh. “Some people don’t resemble their avatars.”
At the table’s head, the Chinese man, navigator Xi Qen, and Annike Olson, the financial officer, flanked Captain Garcia. The captain laughed at someone’s joke, then stood and cleared his throat. Conversations died down. Garcia stood six-feet-two, with brown eyes under thick eyebrows. His van dyke beard emphasized his jaw. “First, has everyone met our new officer trainee, Marqus du Bois? We hired him at New Liberia.”
Nods ringed the table. Olson folded her arms. She’d been aloof in his interview, and he couldn’t tell why. Garcia looked at him and raised an eyebrow. –Say something,– the captain said privately.
“I’ll administer the ship’s computer system,” Marqus said. “I look forward to working with you.” He couldn’t think of anything else, and closed his mouth.
–Thanks, Marqus,– Garcia said. “The second order of business involves our destination and cargo.”
Murmurs bubbled, and Raveena leaned forward. “Why did you refit the Coronado with insulation? Why are we taking methane to colonies around Neptune? The profit margin’s thin.”
Garcia grinned. “I’ll be happy to tell you everything.” He looked around the table. “But first, you have to consent to running your outgoing messages through a censor program.”
The murmurs doubled. “Censorship?” Ludmilla said. Glitter on her eyelids flashed when she blinked. “We have a right to privacy!”
“Your right to privacy ends where ship’s security begins,” Garcia said, but then softened his voice. “We won’t record what you say. The program will flag messages containing certain words, and I’ll review only those messages before they go out. I don’t want to do this, but if certain parties in the solar system knew our plan, we could be in trouble. You’ll have to trust me.” Marqus sensed everyone agree.
“Now Raveena, you asked why we’re hauling methane to a gas giant? Simple. We’re not. I sold it before we took delivery.” Garcia’s gaze darted from face to face. “Everyone get up to speed on terraforming Venus.”
The ship’s network fed thoughts to Marqus like a forgotten memory returning to mind. Before humans arrived, hot carbon dioxide smothered the planet. To terraform Venus, people first had to remove the atmosphere. He superimposed a hologram of the planet over his real vision. Venus appeared as a fuzzy, striped yellow ball above the conference table. It hung in the shadow of a rotating disc eight thousand miles across. Dubbed the SPF-Infinity, the disc blocked sunlight and allowed the atmosphere to cool. Humans lived in cities along the disc’s rim. When cold enough, the atmosphere would rain on the surface, and then freeze into a dry ice shell half a mile deep. Unaided, though, cooling would take centuries.
To speed the process, the Venus Climatology Ministry had built a cooling tower, Beanstalk-1. Five hundred miles high, the tower jutted through Venus’ clouds. Marqus looked for it, and rotated the Virtual hologram until the tower’s tip, marked by a beacon, came into view. Though huge, the cooling tower operated on a simple principle: liquid helium flowed down the tower’s inner wall, and near the surface atmospheric heat turned it into gas. Helium vapor then floated up the tower’s annulus, radiated its heat into space, and became liquid again to restart the cycle. Beanstalk-2 was under construction, and radicals in the Venus parliament demanded a third.
“It all comes down to helium,” Garcia said. “There isn’t any in Venus’ atmosphere, so the government has to import it. Some helium always leaks out, and the second tower will double demand. Now, when demand goes up–”
The planet’s image vanished, and up popped a chart of helium prices at the market in Ishtar, the largest city on SPF-Infinity’s rim. So far this year, the price had gone up five-fold; it now traded at two thousand sols per ton.
“Two thousand sols a ton!” Garcia said. “The Coronado can carry 180,000 tons. Do the math!”
Marqus had hired on for 2.0% of the ship’s profits. His jaw sagged. He would earn over seven million sols! He could retire after one journey! They all could. Naseem grinned, and Sonoma glanced at the captain with a satisfied look.
“It’s not so simple,” Xi said. Concern marred his face. “The price is up because of the Preservationists. Ever since their hard-line faction took over.…”
“They’ll boycott the Coronado, and each of us, for the rest of our lives,” Raveena said.
Heinrich palmed his shaven, tattooed scalp. “We won’t have a rest of our lives. Between here and Venus, bulk helium is only found in Jupiter’s atmosphere. Surrounded by Preservationist settlements on its moons! If we try to take helium, they’ll gun us down!”
“Another gas giant?” Naseem asked. “No, the Presers could intercept us on the way to Venus.”
Marqus’ eyes went wide, and he blinked at the captain with sudden respect.
“You’ve all missed it,” Garcia said. “We’re going to the sun.”
“We’ll burn up!” Heinrich said.
Garcia shook his head. “That’s why I refitted the Coronado with ceramic insulator all around the hull. It’ll stop radiation and slow heat absorption. We’ll have two weeks before the ship’s interior gets too hot.” His smile had a manic edge. “We can mine helium from the sun.”
Ludmilla’s brow furrowed. “The photosphere is 10,000 degrees, and it gets hotter further in!”
“We won’t go further in,” Garcia said. “There’s enough helium outside the photosphere for us to fill the hold in nine or ten days. The gas out there, in the chromosphere, is also less dense, so it’ll be a gentler ride. It can be done.” He leaned forward, fists on the table. “This will be our most profitable trip ever.”
The ship accelerated at point-two gee, enough to keep Marqus’ soles on the deck. New Liberia’s spinning-wheel space habitats soon faded from naked eyesight against Titan’s orange clouds. Abstractly, he’d known New Liberia was insular and isolated; he’d seen how tiny it was from a distance in Virtuals; but seeing it for real, as an image derived from photons reflected off atoms and not neurons induced to fire within his visual cortex, made his cheeks clammy. Even if he went back, he’d never think of New Liberia the same way.
The Coronado had filed a flight plan, destination Neptune, with a gravitational slingshot around the sun to gain more speed. In his mind’s eye, Marqus saw the flight plan, a blue line, turn yellow as the ship crept along it. At the sun, their true flight plan, a red line, curled off and wound itself around Sol. It wouldn’t be easy–the orbital insertion into the sun’s chromosphere required the Coronado to decelerate at three gees for a day and a half–but the ship could do it.
Should he call his parents? Mother would be worried, but Father would try to put doubts in his head. Those ofays and oreos will never treat you as an equal, Marqus imagined his father say. He had to prove himself first. He got to work.
The prior computer administrator, Lorelei, had left the ship six months before. The public memory had grown sloppy since then, littered with file fragments and backed up behind schedule, if at all. Between cleaning up the computer system and absorbing technical manuals, he worked late the first few nights. When he woke, though, deep in his third night aboard with the lights in his cabin still on and murky thoughts of transmitter hardware in his mind, he knew he had to do more than work.
So he sought out his crewmates. Though he felt uneasy at first, the crew’s friendliness showed him most people didn’t fit into stereotypes. He liked Raveena, despite her fondness for martial arts and role-playing Virtuals with dancing elephants and six-armed blue gods. He played chess with Heinrich and racquetball with the captain. Ludmilla introduced him to golf in Virtual. He felt foolish at first, in long pants and spiked shoes, but legends of Tiger Woods and Albert Nkomo buoyed him. By the eighteenth tee, he wanted to try again.
The person he most wanted to meet, though, was the least accessible: Sonoma. Her hazel eyes made his heart pound and sweat meander down his back. He told his software assistant to calm his heartrate and deepen