Grace Donner pulls down the long spiral within the Bode-6 outpost on Ceres. Enjoy the music while Grace conducts a tracking exercise to see how well she can navigate low gravity.

No matter the location of her exercise, no matter how long she’d been away from Red Fox Academy, Grace still heard her drill sergeant when she pushed herself.

“Pull, dammit! Keep up speed,” she huffed, tugging along the nearly deserted arc of Spiral-4. Most of the slush teams were out today: a perfect time to test the rediscovered blurp network. Mhau’s idea.

Grace was surprised at how quickly the engineer had agreed to activate it. She’d expected some resistance—an attachment to privacy, perhaps, like cloisterfolk would. But Bode-6 was firmly under compstate, and as such a protector needed no warrants to carry out surveillance. Mhau’s only hesitation was that she was worried someone else had discovered it first.

Grace wondered about Mhau. Kyran’s caution had underscored the fact that she really didn’t know her. Grace liked what she’d seen so far. An engineer living a gutsy lifestyle in a male-dominated environment? Grace’s kind of person. But Mhau, like Kyran, was also too willing to compromise where the law was concerned. Did Mhau see less savory uses for the blurp network?

Another spoke loomed ahead. Time to check with home base.

“Talk to me,” Grace panted into her ptenda, leaning her head near her wrist, not taking her eyes off the spiral ahead. She was coming up on a turn, moving fast, and didn’t want to overshoot the target.

“Stand by,” Mhau replied. “Kyran is uploading his IDs into the PodPooch.”

Grace smiled. Kyran had used privacy as an excuse to connect Tim directly to the blurp network. He’d told Mhau that the PodPooch chassis would firewall the IDs and offer simple command access. Simple command access. If only Mhau knew what was going on inside Tim Trouncer. Ha! If only I knew.

“Ok. Your PodPooch has found a test target,” Mhau said. “Blurp indicates a single individual. We’re looking for visual confirmation. Left on Spoke-G, twenty meters. Castle G36?” Grace noticed the change in Mhau’s voice. Is Mhau unsure about me visiting G36, or about the blurp network itself?

“Got it,” Grace said, she tapped her ptenda for the Bode-6 overview graphic. G36 was light blue, a maintenance room.

“Slow down, Grace—you’re close,” Tim said.

“I know.”

“You know what?” Mhau asked.

“I know where I’m turning,” she amended aloud. I’d better remember to subvocalize.

Grace grabbed the ceiling straps and brought herself to a stop, straining against the load on her biceps. Looking right, then left, she launched down Spoke-G.

“Nearly there,” she said. “Is the target still inside?”

“Yes,” said Mhau.

G36 was halfway down the spoke. Nondescript, like every other portal in the hall. Seemed strange that it would be a maintenance entrance with a posted sign. She floated to the security scanner, let go of the overhead strap, and dropped slowly to the deck.

“Well?” she breathed.

“Patience,” Tim said. “Codes are forthcoming.”

“Kyran, you didn’t tell me you had maintenance access codes.” Mhau’s voice on the open comm circuit.

“He didn’t.” Tim chuckled in her dermal dot.

Grace’s ptenda flickered and an access string appeared. Finally. She input the code and the door slid open.

It was dark in the room. A splitting snore reverberated into the hallway and stale air flicked her nostrils.

“We can hear the target,” Mhau said. “Blurp audio is online.”

“What is that noise?” Tim asked.

“Snoring,” said Grace.

She needed light, so she unholstered Marty and fingered the targeting laser. It came alive with a gentle hum, its backscatter illuminating the small chamber in a dancing red glow, mixed with pale light coming in from the spoke.

With her left hand on the entrance frame, Grace slowly moved into the room. The snore came from her right. As her vision adjusted, she saw a figure huddled between two crates. She brought Marty’s beam to just above her target.

“Jacob Rander,” Grace said, surprised.

She heard Mhau sigh. “Yes.”

Grace looked around. The room was small: a storage locker. Rander seemed to be using some of the crates as furniture. It’s pathetic, Grace thought. A licensed protector is nothing without pride. She looked again at Rander, his hair greasy and his face unevenly shaved. It’s hard to imagine you were raised cloister.

She switched off Marty and brought the gun back into her jacket. Then she bounced backward into the hall and closed the access door.

“Blurp locator worked like a charm, Tim,” she transmitted silently.

“Naturally,” the PodPooch replied.

Grace smiled. Of course you’d say that.

“Send me another target?” Grace asked over the voice comm.

“No need. It works,” Mhau said, her voice a little shaky.

A roider sped by Grace, all mechflesh and in a hurry. She nodded and waited for him to recede from earshot.

Test complete.

Corey OstmanCeres Rising