Aste-Rats – Short-story

243 Ida and moon Dactyl

Asteroid 243 Ida and its moon Dactyl — Public Domain NASA Photo from Galileo probe

Reader warning: You might be inclined to view certain aspects of this story as politically charged. If you are offended, then I’ve failed to make my underlying point. This is an adventure, but the underlying theme is that people are different and should be judged by what they can do, not who they are or what they look like. The secondary theme is that of the fragility of our societal organization. You’ll see at the end that we could be brought down by something as simple as giving everyone a (currently) valuable gift.

I believe humans have far greater potential than we’ve demonstrated to date. We need to get rid of all of our old baggage–those attitudes we’ve lived with since the dawn of civilization and probably before. We need to re-dedicate ourselves to scientific advancement.

The universe is a big place and there are fantastic resources out there, many available in our own spatial backyard, so to speak. We’re like a group of children fighting over a shiny toy while surrounded by thousands of even better toys.

I’ve done a lot of research on the scientific aspects of the story and they’re as accurate as I can make them. If you find an error, it is probably there because the story needed a certain element to work.

I hope you enjoy reading Aste-Rats and find that the story makes my point that humans can (at least theoretically) get along with each other. If we can’t learn to live peacefully with each other, let me ask you this: How will we learn to live with a truly alien race from some other planet when they invariably show up? (Might be a long, long time; might be tomorrow, but the odds are that they are out there somewhere on a planet much like ours circling a star much like ours.)

 

ASTE-RATS

By Eric Martell

Copyright (c) 2017

It wasn’t fair. Dane mulled the situation over in his head for the hundredth time. He’d carefully controlled for all the variables, even some his critics hadn’t thought of as yet, and the resonant cavity worked. There was a barely detectable amount of thrust from the apparatus. The physics department chair maintained that his results were due to experimental error since there was no measurable ejected matter.

He grinned wryly. Issac Newton would be spinning in his grave. Moreover, if his theory were anywhere close to what was happening, Einstein would be rolling over too. The device was a success. It was limited, but he was sure he could transform it into a real space-drive. It just wasn’t fair that he’d lost his grant.

It was all politics, of course. There was significant money invested in both solar sails and ionic ejection engines, and corporate lobbyists were working overtime to get the politicians to back one or the other to the detriment of all other parties. Dane’s project was merely collateral damage as far as they were concerned.

Dane was a student, not a big name, and his sponsoring professor was considered to be a crack-pot in the academic physics community. That was partially due to his accepting Dane’s ideas as worth investigating. There had been numerous academic papers dismissive of the whole idea of what was considered to be a somewhat magical microwave drive.

Dane’s problem had culminated when Nobel Prize-winning Professor Fasmu, a highly respected sociologist, stated that anyone who thought such a device would work had probably been exposed to too much microwave leakage and had inadvertently cooked their brain. The popular press had picked up on that to the point that he’d even had his picture published in one of the corporate news sites with the caption: “Another Brain-damaged Caucasian”.

Dane could understand the antecedents of the slur. He knew he was smart and had always thought that would be enough, but there had been a significant component of luck to his admission. In this day and age, the majority of citizens looked down on white men. Caucasians were considered too bound to their cultural background of reason to be rational. That euro-centric tendency toward rationality was held to be responsible for a whole litany of both real and fictional historical sins.

Even so, the picture’s caption had hurt, especially since Meredith had dumped him after the article came out. She couldn’t risk associating with someone who was considered crazy. It would hurt her academic career.

In the ensuing argument, he’d thoughtlessly pointed out that her academic specialty was of dubious utility to the advancement of humanity. Deconstructing literature and writing about reality as a strictly cultural interpretation, subject to individual whim didn’t seem to be helping anyone as far as he could see. Telling her that, had been one of his less well-thought-out ideas.

He’d been careful to avoid getting into an argument with her over her theories. That was because he thought she was beautiful and was hopeful that their relationship would advance beyond casual dating.

He’d been naive. In retrospect, he could see that Meredith had been using him to impress her friends. She had gained status because he was supposedly a scientist. The second and more hurtful reason was that he was one of the few white males who had made it through the quota system imposed by the university and Meredith had been showing that she was fair-minded enough to consider him as a possible mate.

Apparently, it had all been a charade. Dane had been slow to figure it out, so maybe he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was. He tried to point out to her that history had become distorted, but she dismissed his argument. She told him that his race’s genetically-caused mental defects had been the cause of all past inequality. She’d hoped that he was not that way, but now she could see that he had the same problem. She could never consider him as a potential mate. In fact, she was embarrassed that she’d ever allowed herself to be seen in public with him.

He reviewed the sequence of events bitterly. The international space agency had pulled his grant in part because of his race. As soon as the article with his picture appeared, there was a demonstration. Other students had protested to the dean of academic equality. That had snowballed into the loss of his grant. It seemed that the primary intent of funding was to equalize opportunities and not to reward innovation.

As he mulled the situation over, he finished destroying the core elements of his apparatus. It was late at night, and he was due to be evicted from the lab tomorrow. He’d put too much work into the system to let it fall into the hands of others, even if they didn’t believe it worked.

When he had finished his destruction, all that was left was a useless pile of miscellaneous parts. He’d gone to the effort of mixing in things that had no purpose in his device to make any attempt at reconstruction difficult. Likewise, he’d taken some of the critical components and thrown them into the dumpster behind the social justice department. He’d climbed in and covered the parts with banned books that were being removed from the university library.

#

Dane had already let his apartment go. He had little money of his own, and now that he’d lost his grant, he would have to apply for public assistance or take whatever menial job was available to him.

He pocketed the USB drive that held the plans for his device and exited the physics building, breaking his key off in the lock as a final symbol of defiance. He was angry and determined to find some way to show everyone that he was right about his invention. Eventually, he remembered Chad.

Chad was an acquaintance who made a living by various unorthodox means, some of which were undoubtedly criminal. Dane had helped the guy with some illicit computer projects and even designed a highly-illegal, short-range EMP weapon. Chad had needed it for something about which Dane didn’t want to know. The man was a useful if dangerous resource. Dane feared he would almost certainly end up in rehab with a mind-wipe.

It was a risk hanging around with him, but Chad was one of the few people who didn’t care about Dane’s race and who appreciated his ability with physics. Maybe he should check in with Chad.

Dane’s anger had reached the point that he was willing to work for Chad, even if the projects were against the law. He climbed on the autonomous bus, glanced at the face-recog scanner for his fare, and rode towards the Ribbon district.

Chad had his base of operations in an old warehouse near one edge of the Ribbon. He claimed to be in the space industry. He had some legitimate contracts to supply parts and food to various space stations.

Nano-tech had advanced quickly, and the construction of the Ribbon had made Chad’s business possible. The early space-elevators had been on high mountain peaks near the equator, making surface transportation difficult.

The Ribbon was new and the first of its kind. It was composed of diamond nano-tubules rather than carbon. The stronger material meant that the Ribbon could be relatively narrow at its base and also allowed it to be located at a northern latitude. It was a kilometer wide, but the fact that it was only two millimeters thick was the amazing part. It grew wider as it approached the 35,786-kilometer level. That was the point of highest centrifugal stress. The Ribbon narrowed beyond that level since the pull gradually decreased the closer it got to the supporting mass that swung at the end of its 155,000-kilometer length.

Dane’s ultimate ambition was to get his prototype engine into space. That was the only place he could test it accurately. He’d previously applied for money to carry it up the Ribbon to the point of zero gravity, often simply called GEO. It was expensive, and he’d been passed over each time he applied. Now he’d lost funding entirely. The thought made his mood sink even lower.

There were several projects currently at GEO that were utterly frivolous. Who cared if poetry composed in zero gravity better expressed social goals? What bureaucrat had the authority and poor judgment to provide funding for poets in residence at the GEO point? It was beyond belief.

There were still a few miles to go. Dane’s mind wandered back to the Ribbon itself. It made reaching Earth orbit a trivial task, even though it was still expensive.

Objects launched below GEO would drop behind the Ribbon and fall into low Earth orbit. Satellites that detached higher on the Ribbon would have increased momentum and move outward. The release point could be calculated to place satellites in any desired orbit.

A launch at the 144,000-kilometer point would have enough velocity to travel all the way to Jupiter. The only problem was getting back. No practical space drive existed and it looked like none would be invented soon, even with all the lobbying. The world government dedicated the bulk of its spending to righting social issues and supporting citizens who couldn’t or wouldn’t work.

No one wanted to take a one-way trip out of the solar system, so there had never been a manned mission launched into interplanetary space, although probes had been launched from the Ribbon.

By this point, Dane had worked himself into such a state of bitterness that he would have volunteered on the instant for a one-way trip away from Earth.

If only he could figure out how to stow-away on one of the climbers with a working prototype, Dane knew he could prove his detractors wrong.

The climbers operated on a set of large rollers that gripped the Ribbon tightly between them. There were strands of carbon nano-tubes spaced at intervals forming electric conductors and giving the Ribbon a striped appearance. The climbers used ground-based power to start the journey. They automatically switched to their built-in solar-powered array at the 40-kilometer level.

The world spacecraft development center was at the first LaGrange point of the Earth-Sun mass system. It seemed a long jump from the 50,630-kilometer launch point on the Ribbon, but it was a comfortable flight for the supply drone. It would be flung outward with enough velocity to reduce the 1.5 million kilometer trip to a moderate inconvenience. It took longer for the Climber to reach GEO than it did for the drone to get to L1.

Dane shook his head. He had missed his stop while he was gathering wool. He jumped off at the next corner and headed back towards Chad’s office. It was in an older warehouse separated from the road by a high fence. Dane stopped at the gate and pushed eight unmarked buttons in a pattern that formed the binary number 68. The gates slid back as the ancient ASCII code for “D” was detected.

Dane walked up to the small office door, opened it and stopped just inside to look around. A figure came toward him, walking quickly across the broad expanse of concrete floor. It was Chad.

“I see’ya, Bruv! You brain mirked from all d’study?” he joked.

Dane said, “Maybe. Maybe not. They terminated my funds. My only hope is to get into space to continue. Think you can help me get to GEO?”

Chad frowned and said, “Go ta the crux, don’ you?” Then he smiled, dropped the street slang for a moment and added, “I understand. You just been effectively kicked out so some doubtless deserving student can muck up your lab while developing a better way to distribute canned beans or something.”

Dane looked down in disgust. There was nothing to say. It was probably true. The provost had made it clear that he thought Dane’s research wasn’t socially valuable.

Chad continued. “Yeah. I owes ya after that las’ job. It turn out good. Your equipment ya made netted me a nice profit. So, that leaves us unequal. Yeah, I got a way to get you up, but you’re going to have to be flexible. It won’t be comfortable or fun. I don’t run a tourist service, ya know, Bruv.”

Dane shrugged. “Anything, man. It took forever to get my prototype adjusted. Now I’ve got the plans on a memory chip. If I can access a metal synthesizer at GEO, I could print the thing in a few minutes.”

Chad said, “Yeah. I guess, but that not an option. They keep close track of everyone there. You gots to go farther than GEO. Listen, Bruv, I got a way to get ya direct to L1. Ya’ll hav’ta ride a supply pod up, though. Once ya get up, the station big enough for a underground economy. I try to get you in with the L1 Rats. They maybe help, ifs they like you. Ya gots to be careful around them, though.”

That was frightening. Dane asked, “L1? I hadn’t thought of getting out that far. It’d be a good place to test my prototype, but I probably wouldn’t be able to come back to Earth, would I?”

Chad answered, “Yeah, L1, but it’s danger. If ya get caught, the corporate cops will either send ya down to prison, or maybe worse. I hear they launching some prisoners to Mars. Ya might get there in a few years.” He paused, then added, “Or not. Ya right, ya won’ be coming back probably. Up for that?”

Dane grimaced. “You make a good case for me going to work in industrial robot repair. My dad always said that would be a good career.”

“Yeah, but the effin’ things most fix themselves now. C’mon back here and I show you the supply pod. I’d rather ya get gone quick an’ on ya way. I got some very touchy buyers showing up the day after tomorrow. They spooky. If they think anything likely to blow their security, they’ll beat out’a here, and I might not live through their exit. Ya can’t be here then.”

Dane nodded. “I understand. I’m ready to go right now. There’s nothing here for me.”

#

Dane was squeezed into a small space inside one of the cargo containers, then loaded onto the supply drone piggybacked on Ribbon Climber 4. Riding an unmanned vessel made him very uneasy, but it took an enormous amount of money to go up as a tourist, so that wasn’t even a remote possibility.

Chad had smuggled him into a pressurized container with a load of food supplies that had to be kept from freezing. Dane soon found out that restriction only meant uncomfortably cold to him. He spent the next three days shivering in a synthetic down sleeping bag.

At least it gave him time to think and plan. He mentally went over his prototype and checked through some of the math in his mind. It would work, but there were some minor tweaks he could make. He came up with an ingenious wave-guide system that he thought would increase the thrust, so his time wasn’t unproductive even though the journey seemed to take forever.

It was a good sign when the gravity hit zero. The climber didn’t pause at GEO. It continued right past the GEO station and began descending toward the counter-weight at the end of the Ribbon. Dane floated for a while and then gradually drifted to what had been the ceiling of his little space. Earth was now up, rather than down.

The ambiance was different. There was a sense of immanence in the background vibration of Climber 4. The descent towards the end of the Ribbon gradually accelerated as the centrifugal force increased. Trying to figure out how long it would take to reach the L1 jump-off point was a distraction, but he was missing too many variables. He didn’t know Climber 4’s mass for one, so he made an estimate. After some intricate mental calculations, he decided that it would take at least another twenty-four hours, so he resigned himself to wait.

He was surprised when the drone detached. Either he’d been way off in his estimate or something was wrong. There was no way of knowing, locked inside the food container. He’d just have to wait and see. At least he wouldn’t die from starvation. Cold or running out of O2 would take care of that job.

He shivered miserably, finally falling asleep. He was in the middle of an elaborate dream about polar bears when the drone began maneuvering and woke him. There was a period of unpleasant deceleration followed by some heavy bumps and clanking noises. Then the cargo container jerked, and there was a sensation of gradually increasing weight.

Dane pulled himself up and endured the acceleration. There was a crashing sound as the container slammed off the acceleration track and slid to a stop fully matched with the station’s rotation.

Almost immediately there was a click, and the auxiliary hatch opened to reveal a small figure dressed in cold-hold clothing, complete with a facemask and hood.

“K’ dirt-foots, get on. We got only a few minutes to get outa here. They be wanting to get these supplies first, so move it!”

The voice sounded like the speaker was maybe twelve, which would match the size. Dane made an effort to hurry, but he was stiff with the cold. The kid groaned, then said, “Ya got to move fast dirt-foots. C’mon on. I’m serious.” The kid grabbed Dane’s arm and pulled hard.

Dane gradually limbered up and began to move faster. They wound through a large hold full of boxes and miscellaneous equipment, then ducked through an airlock and wound their way through narrow halls that seemed to be descending into the bowels of some underworld.

The gravity, no…Dane corrected himself. The centrifugal force increased, so they must be approaching the outside rim of the rotating station. The area was dimly lit and looked deserted.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

The kid glanced back and said, “So, the dirt-foots can talk after all. We going down to the rat warren. The corps stay up in the low G zones. Better shielding and they like the ease of movement. We only have to watch for patrol drones. You can hear them coming, so they avoidable. Now shut it and c’mon. If they catch ya, it’s the macerator or maybe a one-way tour to Jupiter if they ready to try another propulsion system.”

That didn’t sound good, but Dane ignored the implications and asked, “Why are you here? Chad said he had resources up here; people who would help me.”

The answer was brief: “That’s me for now. My job to get you safe. What you do after is up to you. Enough talk. C’mon.”

Dane was dumped in a room, and the kid disappeared. A burly man came in almost immediately.

“You must be the physics genius Chad told us about,” he said. “I hope you’re able to learn quick. There’s a lot to know and not much time to waste. If ya don’t learn quick, ya might as well not have come. We don’ need no useless eaters.”

He launched into a lecture without waiting for Dane to answer.

The rat warren was in the space between the legitimately occupied central areas of the station and the outside rim. The spent cargo containers were transferred outside and attached to the large structure where they formed storage rooms. They were constructed to be occupied and were cleverly designed to interlock in various ways so the station could grow.

It had been in operation for years now, and thousands of containers were linked together into a rotating cylindrical shape almost five kilometers in length. The rat warren covered a large percentage of the undesirable high-G space and housed a few hundred people.

Up above, there were over thirty thousand corporate employees he called them “corps.” They lived in the low G sections. The elite corps were involved with propulsion research for space drives. Then there were their families, admin staff, service staff, and a small military detachment to maintain order.

The warren was the home of the L1-Rats. They had started out as construction workers. Many still legitimately worked on station expansion and maintenance, but their ranks had been augmented by malcontents, injured staff who could no longer work, and older people who were also deemed non-productive. They lived a tenuous life in between the walls. They weren’t supposed to be there, but the corps found them occasionally useful and mostly left them alone. Even their raids on supplies were tolerated as long as they didn’t take too much.

Dane asked, “What happens if a…uh, a drone patrol catches you?”

The burly man grimaced. “Generally taser ya and then ya get picked up and taken to the low-G area for disposal. If they need someone to man an experimental ship, you might get a one-way trip to Jupiter. Not many get the chance to starve to death on the way. They mostly just dump you into the garbage macerator. That’s probably more humane. They recycle everything up here. No one sent back to Earth. Too costly. Ya took a one-way trip, dirt-foots. Ya gotta make the best of it.”

Dane didn’t like the guy’s attitude much, but it was useful information. He said, “I got a 3-d plan I need to print and a load of parts to get. I’ve got some digital coins as long as things aren’t too expensive. I intend to make the best of it as you say.”

The man nodded approvingly. “We can get ya access to a 3-d fabber, no prob. We use ’em all the time for station parts. If we can’t fab the things ya need, we can probably lift them somewhere. That’ll cost ya. Food and water cost more, ‘less ya don’t eat, dirt-foots.”

Dane nodded and asked, “What the eff’ is this dirt-foots thing you keep calling me?”

“Dirt-foots! Dirt-foots! Plain to see ya got dirt on ya feet. There’s people here that ain’t never seen anything but hull plates. They won’t like ya much. You cutting into their air, their water, their food, and their space. I hope ya got enough physics to make a difference. We all tired of this life and want more. Ya better be able to help the way Chad said ya could.”

Dane did his best to adjust. The drone patrol units were noisy and easy to avoid as long as they were moving. The drones would sometimes sit silently in wait in a corridor. Everyone carried inspection mirrors on extendable handles and used them to look around corners before proceeding. It made for slow progress. For the most part that was in the lower-G areas nearer the corp areas in the center of the station. There was an electronic drone warning system in place in the warren, so people were able to move freely there.

Dane found out that Burly’s real name was James and that he was the nominal chief of the Rats. Dane’s carefully hoarded block-chain tokens were eagerly accepted and were enough to allow him to have a combination lab and sleeping unit to himself.

The 3-d plans were in production before his first 12 hour day had passed. The printer operator accepted a small bribe to slip Dane’s job in between corp-ordered production runs. The other parts he needed were more difficult and posed a more significant problem.

#

Dane was trying to make a circuit-board fit through an opening in the assembly that had just come off the 3-d printer. The access hole wasn’t quite large enough for the board, and it was causing him no end of trouble. His neck was painfully twisted as he tried to see what was causing the hang-up and his temper had reached the breaking point.

“Hey, dirt-foots, whatcha doin’ there?”

He recognized the voice. It was the kid who had first met him. Without looking up, he snapped, “Working! Leave me alone.”

The voice said, “Guess ya don want these heavy duty transformers ya asked for after all, huh?”

Dane straightened out, striking his forehead painfully on a protruding part of the engine.

“Damn it…” he started, then his mouth dropped open in astonishment.

After a bit, he stuttered, “You, you’re a girl.”

She looked disgusted. “What did ya think I was Dirt-foots? Ya supposed to be some scientist, but ya don’t seem too smart. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

She had gradually dropped the street talk. She probably wasn’t trying to make friends with him. It seemed more likely that she was well educated and used the jargon as a form of defense.

Dane recovered himself a bit at that thought. He inspected her more closely and decided that she was beautiful, even if her hair was cut short for pressure suit reasons. He sighed. Her skin was far darker than his. Her features were regular and delicate. He’d be lucky to get the time of day from her if she wasn’t delivering the parts he had told James he needed.

“Uh, yeah. I guess you could say I’m a scientist. I didn’t get my degree, but I know what I’m doing,” he said. It sounded lame, and her semi-sneer made him regret his lack of social skills.

She sniffed and looked mildly amused. “Here’s your transformers.” She waved her hand back, indicating a self-powered flatbed cart that was following her.

He said, “Great, I’m almost ready for them. Do you know if anyone has figured out what I can use as a test platform?”

Her face sobered and she looked at him as if she were seriously evaluating his sanity.

“Look, I know you’re new here, dirt–” She stopped herself and then started over. “I know you don’t know what’s going on here, but there isn’t time for a leisurely test. First, if your engine is successful and the corps find out about it, you’ll be lucky if they don’t instantly space you without a suit. They’ll most certainly destroy your engine. Too much money is backing what they’re doing, even though it isn’t going to work. There’s too much at stake in dot.gov subsidies. They’ll never risk their funding. They’re going to keep right on sucking up tax credits and the longer they can drag this out, the better for them.”

Dane hadn’t thought of the political situation, but it made sense. Corporate lawyers created most legislation and specifically designed it for the corporations. Lobbyists were hired to convince elected officials to sponsor bills and ensure they became law. Everyone benefited but the ordinary people. There was apparently some big money being spent on this installation, even though it was trivial compared to total global spending.

She cleared her throat to get his attention. “Second, and most important from my position, is the corps have recently decided that they don’t want to put up with us Rats. Despite the services we provide, they’ve decided that we’re net consumers who don’t pay our way. They’re starting to deploy killer drone swarms. Right now they don’t have too many of the things, but, they’re working on making more. It’s practically impossible to defend against them, so we need to get the hell off this station fast.”

Dane nodded. He knew something about killer drone technology. The small drones could go almost anywhere and were designed to fire a shaped charge into humans. They’d usually go for the brain, but the heart was also a good target, as was the throat. Since they had reaction times that humans couldn’t match, there was no dodging. Even swinging a large net or a tennis racquet was only partially effective. The drones were expendable. One shot per drone. The explosion would destroy both the drone and its target.

He glanced down at his engine, then at her face. He caught her unguarded expression, and it was one of worry blended with hope. Hope, he realized, in him or at least in his invention.

Her expression flipped instantly back to a bored look, but he took the opportunity to explain a little about his engine.

“This will work. I’ve made some rather startling advances in efficiency. The original resonant cavity drive idea has been around for a long time. It was first proposed in 2001 by Shawyer. No respectable physicist would give it any credibility since it seemed to violate all the laws of physics as they were known at the time. There just couldn’t be any thrust, since nothing came out of the drive.”

She interrupted, “Yeah. I’m not an idiot. Action equals reaction. So what have you done that’s so great?”

He grinned. The girl was more educated than she let on.

He continued. “The thing is, no one was sure about the quantum vacuum. It was theorized that it was full of virtual particles, but there was no good evidence that it could react with ordinary matter, except in some odd conceptions of gravity. The resonant cavity just bounces microwaves back and forth in a shaped chamber. Nothing escapes. Nothing, that is, but virtual quantum particles in the zero-point field that are given some momentum by the microwaves. The particles are undetectable, so it looks like nothing is coming out, but there is a definite effect. The engine creates thrust. Maybe it’s only a tiny bit of thrust, but it’s more than a large light sail can generate.”

“So, you’re saying Shawyer’s idea works. How efficient is it and what did you do to increase efficiency?” she asked.

Dane was beginning to like this girl. Not only was she beautiful, but she was smart, too. He had almost forgiven her for their original interaction.

“Shawyer used a frustrum: a truncated cone. That made for more thrust at the large end. There were other slightly different designs, too. What I did was to provide a conical focusing device inside the frustrum. It bounces the microwaves over to the sides of the structure and into tuned wave-guides. The reflected waves are caught and sent back to the narrow end where the magnetron repowers them to be directed back towards the wide end. That way, even though there is still some reverse thrust due to quantum interaction, it’s minimized. My design is roughly three hundred percent more efficient. The thrust, if my calculations are correct, is enough to propel a ship to Mars within about fifteen days.”

She exclaimed, “Fifteen! Why that’s impossible.”

He nodded. “Yeah, that’s what everyone says. I don’t think so. The momentum builds up rather quickly. Of course, you have to allow for turn-around and deceleration. Otherwise, you’re going to exit the solar system.”

She looked as if she was concentrating intensely. It gave her a vulnerable air, so Dane gathered his courage and asked, “You never said. What’s your name?”

She jerked, then looked him up and down for a moment. She answered, “I guess you’re okay. You can call me Tiff. I know you’re Dane.”

She hesitated, then continued. “So why are you here? I mean, well, here instead of at some university or maybe a corporation?”

Dane answered, “Two reasons. First, I’m one a minority. You might have noticed my skin is the wrong color. Second, no one believes my calculations. They told me that my math was wrong and that I should never have been allowed to work on my idea. The implication was that I wasn’t smart enough to know not to pursue the impossible. I’m here to prove they’re wrong.”

He looked down at the equipment he was trying to assemble. “I thought if I could demonstrate that my engine worked, then they’d have to admit I was correct. I’m just glad that your people are giving me a chance.”

Tiff said, “OK. dirt-foots, you don’t know anything about us Rats. To start, I don’t care what color your skin is. Nobody up here does. You bleed red, don’t you?”

She looked up towards the center of the station. “Well, the corps up there in the light gravity care about your skin color, but we’re the Rats. What we have is what you might call a meritocracy. You’re as good as you can do. If you help us survive, you can be black, blue, white, green, or puce and no one will care. If you’re lying and don’t deliver, well, people will be angry. No one likes to have her hopes raised based on a lie.”

She’d unconsciously slipped into a personal mode of speech. Dane caught her gaze and looked directly into her eyes. They were large and brown and so attractive that he almost forgot what he was going to say. With a guilty start, he said, “I’m confident this will work. I just need those transformers and a space-worthy vessel to use for a test.”

Tiff frowned. “You forgot what I said. You are not going to get a test. We’ve got a large section of this station ready to detach. You know each supply module is like a ship, right. Well, we’ve got a block of eighty modules hooked up with explosive bolts. They’re supplied and have their own power. We grabbed one of the spare reactors out of storage and also a bunch of solar panels. You’ll have plenty of electricity.”

Dane felt the blood rush from his face. “You mean you all are going to get in this, this improvised ship and hope that my engine can fly us away from here?”

“Yes. That is exactly what we’re going to do. If you don’t get us out of here in less than maybe seventy-two hours, we probably won’t survive.”

He asked, “What’s to prevent the corps from simply shooting a missile at us once we break away?”

She laughed, rather grimly. “That’s not a problem. They do have a few missiles, but one of our people is a missile expert and does the maintenance. He’d be welcomed if he wanted to live up there, but he’s got a wife who was injured, and she wouldn’t be. He’s fixed the missile guidance so that they’ll fly out and then circle back to the station. If they shoot at us, they’ll end up blowing a hole in themselves.”

Dane felt that was extreme. “What about the innocents that may be affected? Aren’t there any children or pregnant women in the low gravity area?”

She shrugged. “No. We’re all on birth control. There’s too much radiation up here to risk conceiving. No kids to worry about and every single corp-rat is against us. Don’t worry about it. They’ve decided they want us dead. If they kill themselves, Earth will just have to start with a new L1 station.”

Something else occurred to Dane. “If we are successful—I mean, if my engine flies us out of here, where will we go?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked. “We’ll head for the asteroid zone. There’s plenty of resources there. We can make more of your engines and see if we can create our own civilization. We’ll change from L1-Rats to asteroid Rats.”

#

It took twenty hours. Dane had finished his assembly shortly after Tiff had brought him the transformers, but he checked and cross-checked the circuits and connections. He took a third set of measurements of the frustrum just to make sure everything was in its correct place. Finally, he called for James.

James came through the door, nearly brushing both sides with his thick shoulders. Several other people filtered in that Dane hadn’t previously met. Tiff slipped through the door last and stood near the exit.

Dane didn’t wait. “I’m ready. As ready as I’ll ever be. I’m sure my engine will work. I’ve calculated the mass we’re going to be pushing as best I can, and I’m afraid the acceleration is going to be slower than I’d initially thought.”

One of the older men said, “We didn’t tell you everything. We’ve got the explosives set to give us a hard shove away from the main station mass. We’ll time it so that we’re headed for Mars orbit when we blow the bolts, and then you can turn on your engine. The initial explosion will give us a boost. We’ll move away from L1 pretty quickly.”

Dane wiped his face with his hand. “Well, yes, but that doesn’t change the acceleration factor for my engine. I’ll have to recalculate everything again, once we figure out how fast we’re moving away.” He looked at the man and asked, “Did you calculate our velocity based on the amount of explosives?”

The man looked at James. “Uh, no. There are complicating factors. We’re not quite sure. We’ll just have to wait until we separate to see.”

James asked, “As I understand it, your drive doesn’t have to be located anywhere in particular so that it is pointing the right way. Right?”

“I’d like to have it at the end of the ship. It would make steering more manageable, and besides, there’s a small amount of thrust attenuation if the virtual particles have to pass through much matter. We’ll do better if it’s at the back.

James grinned “Good. That’s where it’s located right now. This compartment is at the end of the pods we’ve set to separate. Now, how are you going to steer the thing?”

Dane pointed and said, “I’ve mounted it on gimbals. Computer controlled with very accurate servos. We can change direction in small increments. The system is capable of moving from degrees down through minutes to seconds. I think we can keep it pushing us in the direction we want.”

James said, “The asteroid belt is where we want to be. There’s plenty of resources out there. We’ve decided that Ceres should be our initial destination. We’ll reconfigure the ship into multiple vessels when we get there and provide each with a copy of your drive. Then we set up our own habitat.”

A continuous beeping warning stopped the discussion.

James shouted, “Drone alert. Lock everything down. Now!” He grabbed his comm unit and gave a set of commands. Listened to the response, then looked at Dane.

“We’ve got to launch right now. There’s been a Kessler event. The Ribbon was severed right at GEO by a perfect storm of cascading satellite parts. It wasn’t supposed to be possible. The structure was designed to be immune to normal debris strikes, but this one wasn’t normal. The Ribbon broke, and the counterweight is headed in this direction. The corps up above are panicking. They’ve decided to get rid of us immediately to preserve their supplies and air. We’re under attack, so we blow the bolts and separate before the drones can get into our space.”

He said something into the comm unit. There was a pause; then a rumble shuddered through the station’s structure. The pod’s apparent gravity instantly changed directions, causing the humans to fall and slide against one wall. Dane found himself partially suspended, hanging from his engine mount.

There was a buzzing sound, and three small drones came through the still opened door. The devices shot forward and exploded against three of the humans. The smell of explosive and blood filled the chamber.

James had regained his feet and was shouting into the comm unit. After a bit, he said, “Clean up the mess. Those were the only kill-bots that got into this section. We’ve lost about a hundred people total, but we are now totally separate from the main L1 station. The corps can fry in hell.”

Dane had worked his way around to a sitting position that gave him access to the computer he’d built into the drive system. He set it to some calculations, then said, “Hell is where they’re going. My system interfaces with our radar unit, and they’ve been knocked out of the L1 position. They’re headed towards low earth orbit. If the Earth doesn’t suck them in, they’ll make a slingshot pass around the planet and then head directly toward the Sun.”

Tiff shouted; an incoherent cry that was midway between relief and agony.

James shook his head, then said, “They’ve got their hands full. I doubt they’ll shoot at us. Dane, get your engine ready to go. We’ll have the modules reconfigured into a line in an hour. Then let’s get out of here.”

Dane said, “Well, I guess I’m ready to take a test run.”

Tiff interjected, “I told you. No test. This is it. Your engine better work.”

He looked at her. Her eyes were shining with something, but he couldn’t tell if she was angry or afraid. “I’m sure it will work,” he said.

There was a series of clangs, followed by booming noises. James said, “The modules are aligning themselves now. We’ll be ready shortly.”

#

The Rats worked like fury to adjust the shape of the structure, and it gradually began to look like a space vessel rather than a curved arc of cargo modules.

Dane was given the signal and turned on his engine. It made a small humming noise, but that was all. It was vaguely anticlimactic.

Tiff looked at him questioningly. “Is it working?” she asked.

Dane was bent over the computer, concentrating, then he raised his head, triumph in his eyes. “Yes. It’s adding to our acceleration. I’ve calculated the vector for Ceres. Starting at our present speed, and allowing for the drive acceleration, we’ll reach turn-around in a hundred and twenty-four hours.”

#

When they were a little over three thousand kilometers away from the erratically spinning bulk of the L1 station, they detected multiple missile launches. The corp rats were trying to take revenge, futile though it might be.

None of the missiles struck the Rat’s ship. They all looped around, passing through the L1 point and then continued accelerating off in random directions. One of the missiles happened to be on the exact vector that the remaining part of the L1 station was following. It exploded against the bulk of the mass. The Rats paid no attention. The L1 station was no longer a part of their lives.

#

Tiff came into what was now called the Engine room with a tray. “Captain James told me to bring you some food. We’re nearly ready to connect internal controls so you can come to the control room at the front of the ship. You’ll be able to steer from there.”

She paused and looked embarrassed.”Dane, I owe you an apology. At first, I didn’t like you. I thought you were a fraud. I didn’t think you could do it. But you did. I made a big production about this being a meritocracy, but I had my own doubts. I’ve been searching through my beliefs since your engine started working. I’ve concluded that I was at least a little prejudiced. I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”

She moved closer to him, leaning forward due to her decreased weight in the acceleration. Whether by accident or by intent, their lips met and then her arms came around his shoulders. He kissed her back for a moment.

She leaned back, her eyes wide. “That was very nice,” she said. “Let’s do it again.”

He was only too happy to oblige.

There was a noise at the door and the two guiltily separated.

James stood there, steadying himself against the door frame. “Don’t stop on my account. I just wanted to congratulate Dane. We’ll be at turn-around for Ceres in another twelve hours.”

They looked at each other and Dane pulled Tiff closer. She didn’t resist.

James added, “We’ll set up a base there. The first thing we’re going to do is to explore a nearby asteroid. It’s not very large, but we’ve been watching it. One of our older guys was a geologist before he left Earth. He’s run some calculations, and I had one of our engineers cross-check them.”

Dane asked, “What did they show?”

James laughed aloud. “That’s the critical question. The asteroid is too small to see from Earth, but it has a high density. Based on its estimated size, it could be composed of one or a combination of several heavy metals, but I’m betting the thing is at least partially loaded with gold. We estimate about a hundred million tons of it.”

Dane hugged Tiff tightly, while his mind whirled. Dane opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Tiff asked, “Wouldn’t that make us, I mean our colony, more valuable than the whole of Earth?”

James said, “Well, it would ruin the value of gold if we transported it all at once to Earth, but if we’re careful, we should be able to negotiate for supplies with small amounts. We’ll have to make sure they don’t know where we’re getting it. If they found out, they’d try to take it away from us, and if they couldn’t do that, they’d attempt to destroy it.”

Dane said, “We should have plenty of time to get established. I didn’t leave any records of my changes to the resonant cavity idea. In fact, the main innovation I made, the most effective one, I came up with on the way to L1. We’re the only people who have that secret. The physics department at the university knows I was working on a space-drive, but even if they start now, it should take them years to duplicate my work, and that’s if they get lucky and guess what I’ve done. Besides, they’re all geared up for various reaction drives, none of which have been successful. The government might make it out here in about five years or so, but that’s also assuming they change their spending priorities and devote more money to research. I don’t think the population will be happy about that decision..”

Tiff added, “By then, we’ll have plenty of ships and will have established ourselves. The asteroid belt is ours.”

James said, “We are even safer than you think. If they show signs of aggression towards us, we can simply threaten to push a few thousand tons of gold into low earth orbit. They’ll go crazy trying to reach it. The best part is that if it gets to the surface, it will crash the global economy. If we have to, we can make sure that chunks fall all over the place. The current government won’t survive the currency devaluation and ensuing uproar.”

Tiff laughed with joy, then said, “I think we’ve graduated from L1-Rats to Asteroid Rats.”

Dane added, “Rats with golden teeth. Maybe we should call ourselves Aste-Rats.

She kissed him again. “I know one Aste-Rat that I’m going to be living with for a long time. James, you’re the Captain. You can marry us, can’t you?”

James’ teeth shown with a bright grin. “Yes, I guess that’s part of my authority.

The End