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EP359: Chasers

By Scott W. Baker
Read by Mat Weller
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Triangulation anthology (2004)
All stories by Scott W. Baker
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 13 and up

Chasers
by Scott W. Baker

Sebastian’s organs squeezed into his pelvis as he accelerated past point-one.  He had a good feeling this time.  This catch was going to be his.

He could see his objective ahead of him, the enormous Drifter-class colony ship Calypso barreling through space on her inertial journey from Earth to Terra III.  Since she carried no fuel for deceleration, Calypso would travel through space forever without Chasers like Sebastian.  It was the job of a Chaser to run down Drifters and fill their tanks.  The job had sounded easy when he signed with Mulligan Mining eight months ago.  But despite nine arrivals since then, Sebastian has not made one catch.

Calypso was a slow Drifter at a mere point-13 c.  Surely he could catch that.  His Skeeter was designed to reach point-2, faster and more maneuverable than any other company’s ships.  Yet what advantages Skeeters held in speed and agility they sacrificed in capacity.  Even if he caught the Drifter, it took a total of three Skeeters to fill her.

Sebastian ran a scan of Calypso.  Leonard was already docked.  That was too fast for him to have waited for the Drifter’s beacon; he must have taken his Skeeter out without confirmation a Drifter was coming in.  Lucky.  Blind patrols were expensive gambles, especially on a Chaser’s budget.  The exorbitant price of fuel on Earth was the primary reason Drifter-class colonizers dominated the colonization market, and a booming fuel industry made Terra III the most popular destination.  Like most things, it boiled down to money.

A pair of blips appeared on Sebastian’s nav screen. Two ships were approaching from behind.  The tiny blip indicated the presence of another Skeeter, the third they’d need to fill the Calypso.  The larger blip was an Essex Bus, a hundred-percent capacity tanker from a rival fuel company.  Rather, Essex was the rival of Mulligan.   Both Sebastian and the other Skeeter would have to beat this Bus if Mulligan was going to make the sale.  If the Bus docked first, the sale would go to Essex.  One Bus could do the job of three Skeeters, assuming it could get to the colony ship first.

Sebastian pushed his engines harder.

The big blip was moving fast for a ship its size.  It drew closer until Sebastian could see it through his canopy.  It was more than three times the size of his little Skeeter and was now careening at point-16 c.  “Damn,” Sebastian whispered as he was overtaken, “I thought Busses maxed out at point-15.”  It was the reason Sebastian had signed with Mulligan instead of Essex: the need for speed.  Busses just weren’t meant to go that fast.  But even one percent of the speed of light could mean the difference between a bonus check and a long flight back to port.  If a Chaser could finagle a little extra zip out of his ship, he did.  Apparently this Bus pilot was a finagler.

Sebastian adjusted his fuel ratios and pushed his engines even harder.  The ship began to vibrate around him.  Still the Bus pulled away.  “One Skeeter already on and Essex is going to get the sale anyway,” Sebastian said.  He started the calculations for his return to port.

“You ain’t giving up, are you?” a voice croaked across the closed-circuit communicator.  Closed-circuit meant it was another Mulligan pilot.

“Repeat?” Sebastian replied.

“Bas, that you?”  Only one person ever called him Bas.

“Roger, this is Sebastian.  What’s your twenty, Wild?”

“I’ll be on your screen in a shake.”

“Don’t bother.  I was just passed by a Bus going point-16.”

“Isn’t Freebird already on?”  Wild meant Leonard.  He refused to call anyone by their actual name, including himself.  He wasn’t born with the name Johnny Wild, but no one knew anything different to call him.  Besides, he lived up to it.

“Roger that, Leonard has already docked with the Calypso.  I’m the next closest Skeeter at–” Sebastian checked his numbers, “–one hundred eighty thousand kilometers.”

“You still think like a kid in the belly of one of those Drifters,” Wild said.  “We use mega-meters out here.  That’s a hundred eighty m&m’s.  You’re right on top of her!”

“I’m not moving fast enough.  If that Essex pilot is any good, he’ll be docked before we get there.”

“That Essex pilot is Old Harold.”

Sebastian’s heart sank.  Old Harold had been chasing ships longer than Sebastian had been eating solid food, and he hadn’t lost a step.  If any Essex pilot was good, Harold was.  “I might as well just head back.”

“You just leave Harold to me,” Wild said.  “Get your ass up to that Drifter and we’ll make this catch.”

“Where did you say you were?”

“Look up.”

Sebastian did, just in time to see a streak of pink pass above his canopy.  Only Wild was man enough to fly a pink Skeeter.  Most guys flew some macho combination of black and red or blue.  Wild’s ship was hot pink and no one gave him any crap about it.  At least not twice.

Sebastian screamed an expletive into his communicator.  “You must be close to point-3.  Are you crazy?”

“Not crazy, just wild.  This ain’t no friendly game out here.  If you can’t take it, move on.”

If you can’t take it, move on.  The third rule of Chaserdom.  The second rule awarded the sale to the first company to dock a full load of fuel.  The first rule: Chasers will catch every Drifter at any cost.

Wild began his deceleration as soon as he passed Sebastian.  In the minute they’d been talking, Sebastian had closed to about five thousand kilometers — five m&m’s — and started his own deceleration.  Catching up to a Drifter was simple enough, just straight-line flight as fast as you dared to go.  Docking was quite another.  The maneuver required timing, finesse, precise calculation, and constant reference to the Skeeter’s entire battery of sensors.

Something on the screen caught Sebastian’s attention, a blip far in front of the Drifter.  It was Wild.  The fool had shot right past the Drifter before managing to drop his speed.  Now he was slowing to allow the _Calypso_ to creep up on him, effectively approaching the Drifter from the front along its port side, backward.

Old Harold was already working the port side.  His Bus was perfectly matching _Calypso’s_ pace from a distance of two kilometers and was sliding laterally toward the docking cap.  There was only one cap on that side and Wild wasn’t about to let Harold take it.

Small as a Skeeter may seem in comparison to other ships, it still hauled a third of a Drifter’s fuel capacity, requiring it to be nearly a quarter kilometer in diameter.  Sebastian tried not to think of these specs as Wild edged his ship into the rapidly shrinking gap between Harold’s much larger Bus and the absolutely enormous Drifter.  And he was doing it backward.

Harold’s Bus paused as the Skeeter slipped into the crack.  He even backed off a little, for a moment.  Then his voice came across the open-band communicator.  “That must be Johnny.”

“None other,” Wild responded.

“No one else would try a stunt that extraordinarily stupid.”

“You still plan on scooting over here?”

“Hey, you know the rules,” Harold said.  The Bus began to nudge laterally again, closing on the Drifter and on Wild in between.  “It’s tough competition out here.  If you can’t take it…”

A light on Sebastian’s panel flashed twice then remained lit.  Fuel lock on Calypso’s port side.

“…then move on,” Wild concluded for Harold.  Wild was on.

A tense moment passed with Harold’s Bus less than a quarter kilometer from Wild, a Skeeter-width.  Finally Harold rolled his ship toward the Drifter’s belly.  He was beaten.

“I’m on,” Wild announced over the Mulligan channel.  “Your turn, Bas.”

Sebastian had been too enthralled with Wild’s psychotic maneuver to pay attention to his own progress.  He had inadvertently slipped past the docking cap during the excitement.  “Uh, working on it.”  He kicked his retros and gradually allowed the cap to catch up with him.  He was less than a kilometer off the Drifter now, moments away from his first catch.

A proximity alarm interrupted Sebastian’s thoughts.  “What the–”  The Drifter was factored into the navigational equations and shouldn’t trigger any alarms.  But it wasn’t the Drifter; Harold was repaying Wild’s favor on Sebastian, only the gap on this side was certainly not wide enough for a Bus to squeeze through.  He was going to sideswipe Sebastian’s Skeeter.

Sebastian flinched.  He kicked in a lateral thruster and slid away from the cap.  Harold was docked forty seconds later.

“Ha ha!” Harold screeched over the open-band.  “Better luck next time kid.  This isn’t a game of touch football, you know.  If you can’t take it, move on.”

#

It was a long month that passed while Sebastian waited for the next colony ship to arrive.  He avoided all the Chaser bars and hangouts, even Burnout’s.  He didn’t respond to the dinner invitations Wild’s wife sent.  He just couldn’t face Wild or any other Chaser after what had happened.  It made for a very secluded existence on a Chaser port.  He didn’t even pick up his stipend check in fear that it might be his last.  It was Sebastian’s fault Mulligan lost out on the Calypso sale.  Wild and Leonard lost bonuses because of him.  Harold added another notch to his already obnoxious résumé because of him.

Sebastian spent the next weeks psyching himself up for the coming chase.  When the next Drifter beacon finally registered, Sebastian stepped into the bustling decon room convinced this catch would be his.

“Where you been, Bas?” asked a middle-aged man wearing nothing but sunglasses.  It was Wild.  “Hiding out?  You’re not gonna wrap this one up for Old Harold and those Essex goons like you did the last one, are you?”

“No, this one’s got my name on it,” Sebastian boasted as he kicked off his boots.  “Besides, that old coot cut in on me at point-13.  I didn’t feel like playing bumper cars at a seventh the speed of light!”

Wild selected a sterile flight suit from his locker, broke the seal, and stuffed a cigar into the breast pocket.  “Old Harold always plays rough with newbies, but he didn’t want to ding his boat neither.  Nudge back next time, see who’s who.”

Sebastian stopped unbuttoning his shirt long enough to scoff at the suggestion.  “My little Skeeter against an Essex Bus?  He has more than three times a Skeeter’s mass!  That’s not a game of chicken anymore; it’s a game of cuckoo.”

“How many catches you got, Bas?”

Sebastian stepped into a steam stall, ignoring the question.

“Exactly!” Wild called after him.  “There’s a reason we fly Skeeters.  Gotta be fast.  Gotta be fearless.  Gotta be crazier than the other guy.  If not, go drive a Bus for Essex.”

Sebastian shook his head as the chemical steam enveloped him.  The cloud was subsiding when he finally called out to Wild, “This catch will be ours.  I’ll hold it for you.”

“Just like you held the last one, tyke?  I appreciate it!”  The voice was not Wild’s.

Wild was gone, replaced by the silver-haired, heavyset arch-criminal of the Chaser industry.  “Harold,” Sebastian growled.

“A few more like last month’s and you’ll be on the Essex wall of fame,” Old Harold laughed.  “Right under my picture.”

“Great, now I need another steam bath.  I thought the chemicals were supposed to kill parasites like you.”

Harold made a tsk-tsk sound.  “Boy, someone should teach you respect for your elders.”

“You got the elderly part right.”

“Don’t spew your venom at me.”  Harold raised his hands, pantomiming innocence.  “I didn’t back off a catch because of a little competition.  If that Drifter had waited for you to drum up the courage to dock, it might have coasted through deep space forever.  If you can’t take it, move on.”

Sebastian’s retort was too slow in forming and never quite escaped his lips.  Instead he stepped into the white room to don his flight suit.

Sebastian knew Wild would make it to this Drifter.  Mulligan could always count on Wild.  He just hoped they could count on Sebastian for once.  And who else?  Leonard again?  Doubtful.  Not that it mattered.  As long as Mulligan made a sale, the first three Skeeters would go home with a bonus — both in cash and Mulligan stock.  Everyone else would just go home.

Sebastian sealed his suit.  He was going to make this catch.  He stepped out into the hangar to prepare his ship.

#

The outpost shrank away as Sebastian pushed his Skeeter past point-one.  The G-forces were almost enough to squeeze Old Harold from his head.  He soon found himself amidst a dozen other ships, all streaking forth in hopes of landing a deal with the incoming vessel.  He recognized five other Skeeters, one Essex full-load tanker (not Harold’s), and a couple horticulturalist vendors hoping the transport might have a damaged eco-garden.  The rest of the vessels were most likely service merchants from other outposts: prostitutes, real estate brokers, military recruiters, and missionaries all hoping to get a leg-up on the competition by striking before the colonists reached the planet.

This Drifter was moving just under point-16, a much better pace than the last as far as Skeeter pilots were concerned.  Faster Chasers catch faster Drifters.

Sebastian checked his gauges.  He was already past point-13, less than three hundredths from matching pace.  Still not close enough.  He pushed the engines to red as the careening Drifter started to pass the cluster of hopefuls.  He was already close, close enough that he felt like he could reach out and touch the Drifter.  Yet it might as well have been a million mega-meters away.  Any attempt to dock with such a speed differential would rip his tiny ship to shreds.

The field of crafts thinned and scattered as all seventeen kilometers of colony ship passed.  The giant Drifter was little more than a speck in space by the time Sebastian had matched its speed.  He pushed harder.  His whole vessel began to clatter with the effort, but he couldn’t afford to back off.  He needed to catch that ship.

His dial reached point-23.  He’d only reached this speed once in the simulator and never in an actual ship.  Sebastian’s knuckles were white.  “Wild would be proud,” he said through his rattling teeth.

Suddenly, there was another ship on top of him.  It streaked past as if Sebastian’s recklessly fast Skeeter were standing still.

“That you, Bas?” Wild’s voice chimed over the noise of the cockpit.  “Movin pretty good for a newbie.  You might just catch this one!”  Sebastian was too flustered to respond.

“Relax, I see you coming,” Wild assured.  “There ain’t no one else up here.  You can probably coast her in from there.”

“You sure?”  Sebastian couldn’t afford to screw this up.

“I ever steered you wrong?”

He hadn’t.

Sebastian cut his engines, diffusing the vibrations with them.  His inertia closed the gap quickly.  He fired his retros to reduce his velocity enough to avoid shooting past his objective.

Every nerve in Sebastian’s body writhed as he eased his ship toward the docking cap.  This was where he’d blown it last time.  The mere thought of Harold’s Bus muscling over on him made his palms sweat.  But Harold wasn’t here.  No one else was here.  This was Sebastian’s catch to make or lose.

He wiped his face.  He had to focus!  After all, if he couldn’t take it, he should just move on.  But Sebastian didn’t want to move on; he wanted this catch.

Long minutes passed while Sebastian edged toward the Drifter.  He heard the chafing of metal on metal as he moved too close too quickly.  The ship lurched tangentially.  He slapped at his thrusters in desperation.  The next sound was louder.  Chunk!  He was docked.

Sebastian collapsed in his seat, relishing the unfamiliar sensation of success.  His heart raced; his hands were numb.  “I’m on,” he finally gasped, still gasping from the rush.  “I’m on.”

“Congrats, kiddo,” Wild said over the Mulligan channel.  “Come on in.  I’m talking to the captain.  I think we may have a sale here.  Ray-Ray was right behind you.”

Sebastian frowned at the fueling hatch.  He had actually thought he’d beaten Wild.  He should have known better.

The bio-scan flashed green, indicating Sebastian carried no bacteria that could infect the passengers.  Most of the colonists had been born en route.  Generation ships like this one did not react well to foreign microbes.  The pressure between the hatches equalized and Sebastian slid into the massive vessel.

The interior was unremarkable, as had been the exterior short of its sheer immensity.  If you had seen one Drifter, you’d seen them all.  Being born on one made them that much less fascinating to Sebastian, especially this vast network of dim service tubes.  They were more akin to drainage pipes than passageways.  Sebastian crawled up into the ship.  His stomach protested the artificial gravity as he entered, but he managed to stifle his reaction.

His senses had fully adapted by the time he arrived in the captain’s lounge.  Wild was already waiting with the captain, an older lady with lonely eyes and thinning hair.  She was likely from the ship’s first freefall generation.  Sebastian felt a twinge of disappointment.  Every Chaser knew the story of the beautiful gen-three pilot Wild had encountered, wooed, and married four years back.  The pair now had a sex life that belied all the clichés about marriage and two daughters that thought their daddy hung the moons.  It was a fairytale every Chaser hoped to emulate.  This captain didn’t seem a sufficient candidate.

“Sebastian,” Wild said, stirring him from his disappointment.  Sebastian had never heard his full name escape Wild’s mouth.  “This is Captain Erika Braxton, our newest client.”

“Gentlemen,” the captain smiled, “welcome aboard Drifter Eternity.”

Wild toasted the welcome with his flask and relit his cigar.  “This looks like quite a ship,” he commented diplomatically.  Wild could reportedly negotiate price with anyone in the galaxy.  Sebastian had never before had the opportunity to watch him work.  His eyes actually twinkled as he spoke.  “How many passengers you carry?”

“We have quarters for about six thousand,” Captain Braxton said importantly, “almost all full, though we started with about eleven hundred.  Plus we have a few passengers in special transport.”

Wild’s cigar quivered.  “Special transport?  You mean Frosties?”

She nodded.

The mere mention of Frosties drained the blood from Sebastian’s extremities.  He’d heard too many stories about faulty cryo-units and premature thawing.  It just didn’t seem worth the risk to him.  Most colonists felt the same way, accepting a life in the confines of a colony ship in exchange for a future on Terra III for their children’s children.  To most colonists, anything was better than Earth.  But not cryo-travel.

Captain Braxton smiled, misinterpreting the Chasers’ reactions as interest.  “They are very important passengers.  Dr. Steinen and his associates are the minds behind a new system of entirely fuel-free colonization.”  Wild’s eye developed a tiny tremor as she spoke.  “As I understand it, they will use a series of magnetic and gravitonic accelerators to propel colony ships to nearly one-half c.  Trajectory will be calculated precisely enough that the ship can be dropped into another series of magnets on this end.  That receiver is what Steinen and company are here to build.

“It’s supposed to be a mega-trillion dollar project, but its impact on colonization will be tremendous.  Trips will be fast enough that young men and women who depart from Earth will be able to see Terra III in their lifetime.  The savings on fuel alone should quickly offset the initial investment.

“Earth-side has already set up the accelerator.  My father even saw part of it on his way out of the Sol system.  The sequence begins just beyond the asteroid belt and reaches beyond the orbit of Pluto.”  A comparable arrangement in the Terra III system would reach twice as far out as Sebastian had ever ventured.

“How many of your passengers are involved in this project?” Wild asked, most of the sociability faded from his tone and the twinkle extinguished.

“This is a corporate-sponsored vessel.  Most of the colonists are trained to either service the catcher or assist in its construction, but my cryostatic passengers are the engineers who designed the original slingshot.  The entire project is their baby.  When we arrive, they’ll be in charge.  They trusted no one else to the task, preferring to hibernate so they could see their dream to fruition.  They expect the catcher to be complete within the next forty years.”  The gleam in her eye betrayed her excitement at the prospect.

Wild’s eye, on the other hand, seemed to cast its own shadow.  “What will this project do to the fuel industry here, T3-side?”

The woman wrinkled her already pruny nose as she thought a long moment on the issue.  “I imagine ships will be needed to maintain the accelerator,” she responded slowly, searching for each word.  “Plus whatever intra-system travel goes on here.  There may even be an occasional old-style colony ship.  But otherwise…”  Her gaze dropped to the floor as the thought faded away without completion.

Sebastian’s communicator interrupted the exchange.  “This is Fisher.  I’m on.”  He had somehow edged out Rayburn.  That meant the third Skeeter was ready.  The other fuel ships, beaten, decelerated and headed back to port.  Sebastian had earned his first bonus.

“Sorry, but yer too slow!” Fisher taunted over the open-band at the defeated Chasers.  “Don’t like it?  Move on!”  Sebastian and Wild excused themselves abruptly and returned to their ships to begin the fueling sequence.

#

Sebastian ran his fueling checklist.  The concept of this gravitonic catcher rattled through his head, making it difficult to focus on the process at hand.  He did his best to double- and triple-check each step lest his first catch explode from a loose seal or a faulty hose.  Sudden decompression of a fuel tank would be bad news — news he would never hear.  He had just finished sealing the last connection when his communicator signaled a secure transmission.

“Bas?” Wild whispered, “How many catches you got?”

Sebastian started the warm-up cycle on the pumps.  “Thank you for reminding me that this is my first.  Why, do I get hazed tonight or something?”

“Know how many I got?”

“Wild, you have more catches than anyone but Old Harold,” Sebastian said.  “What is this, ninety-six?”  Wild had been part of every Mulligan sale in the past four years.

Wild released a half-laugh.  “Sixty-four…plus this one.”  There was a long silence.  “That’s a lot of bonuses.  A lot of Mulligan stock.”

Sebastian grunted agreement.

“My family has to live off that stock when I’m gone.  Thought it would be a great start.  Not so sure now.”

“What are you talking about?”  Sebastian threw a switch and his system started to hum.  “You plan on being gone sometime soon?”  Chasers had a tendency to predict their own deaths.  Lots of adrenaline junkies did, especially after endorphins faded from a chase.  This was nothing new, or so Sebastian thought.

“I aim to be round a while,” said Wild.  “Starting to wonder which’ll be gone first, me or Mulligan.  I can’t leave my family with nothing.”

“Is this about that catcher thing?  It will be decades before that takes over, probably half a century.  You won’t have to see Mulligan shrivel.”

“My girls will.”

Another long moment of dead air.

“What are you saying?  You aren’t planning to defrost anyone?”

“No, Bas,” Wild said, a little too calmly.  “But I can’t help them kill Mulligan.  I can’t.”

“Okay Wild, you’re scaring me now.  Just get your load in and we’ll go hit Burnout’s for a nice bottomless pint.  My treat.”

“You don’t get it, do you Bas?”

The conversation was interrupted.  “Wild,” Fisher squawked over the Mulligan circuit, “something wrong?  My readings say you aren’t pushing anything in.  In fact, your pumps are reading cold.  Everything okay?  You’re slower than the kid today.”

Sebastian confirmed Fisher’s report with his own readings; there were no vibrations originating from Wild’s ship.  He hadn’t even begun to warm up his pumps.

Sebastian switched back to the private channel, deafening Fisher to the conversation.  “Wild, are you nuts?  The other Skeeters are gone.  Everyone’s gone.  No other Chaser is going to make it here in time.  If we’re going get ourselves back to the port then we need to get this ship full and decelerating within the next six hours, preferably three.  If you’re cold, we’re talking that long just to get your fuel in her.”

“Bas…  I just can’t.”

“If we don’t fill this ship, you will be murdering every one of these passengers.”

“They can live long, happy lives inside this ship,” Wild said coolly.  “It’s all they know.”

“Forget the passengers, then.  If you go back to the outpost with a full load, God knows what kind of penalties you’ll get slapped with.”

“Nothing will happen if no one knows.”

“Right, no one’s going to notice that your tank is still full?”

“Who says the tank will be full?”  Wild’s docking clamps released.

Sebastian nearly choked.  “What are you…?  You can’t open a pressurized fuel tank in a vacuum!  Can you?”

“I’ll let you know.”

#

One year later, on the day the Eternity was scheduled to arrive at Terra III, Sebastian held a private memorial for Wild.  He had made four catches since the day Wild’s Skeeter exploded.  The official incident report declared that Wild’s docking clamps had malfunctioned, causing his Skeeter to drift away from the colony ship, resulting in spontaneous decompression of his fuel cell.  Sebastian had provided key statements in the investigation.  Wild would have done the same for him.

That same day, the colonists aboard the Eternity were coasting past the outermost orbital of the Terra III system.  But Sebastian did not shed any tears for them.  It was tough competition out here.  If they couldn’t take it, they should just move on.

And they did.

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