Slingship Sam, Chapter 7: Entering the dome

     Gravity inside the airlock slammed him to the floor. He was still paralyzed from the taser but still fully conscious. Must be corium plating in the floor. Felt like about a half a gee. The woman gave him another taser jolt, then slapped a switch on the wall. The outer door slid shut and the airlock pressurized with a growing roar.

     When the pressure matched the inner airlock door opened and two burly men burst through and grabbed Sam. Unlike the woman, they were dressed in khaki cargo shorts, colorful t-shirts, and short heavy socks under their transparent space suits. They pulled Sam’s hands behind his back and tied them with a large plastic cable tie. They picked up Sam and carried him out of the airlock into the dome and dumped him on the floor. They pulled off Sam’s helmet and air tank and his piton harness before taking off their own helmets. One of them said, “Gem! You should have waited for us, what were you thinking?”

     The woman took off her helmet. “I was thinking we had to stop this guy,” she said. “He’s already killed once.” She gave Sam another jolt from the taser, then handed the taser to one of the men. “Vince, take him to Dad’s office in the Hub. Keep him sedated with the taser. He parked his slingship just outside our door, I’m going to check it out.” Vince nodded.

     She went back into the airlock and closed the door. The men forced Sam to his feet and began frog-marching him toward the center of the dome. He did not have much control of his muscles but he could look around despite his paralysis. The dome was as big inside as the Louisiana Superdome stadium where he’d seen a Saints football game when he was a child. Illumination came from the dome’s glowing white hexagonal roof panels. The floor was hexagons of metal, apparently with corium to provide a half-g of gravity. It was a lot bigger than the geodesic dome Sam was familiar with back on Interamnia. 

     They carried Sam a hundred feet toward a central dome made of transparent hexagons. His head was bobbing but he was able to see several other smaller geodesic domes amid multitudes of 40-foot shipping containers stacked along the outer perimeter of the dome, and an array of industrial 3D printers.

     The door into the inner center dome was another airlock but the pressure was the same on both sides so it opened fast. Above the door was a sign: “Welcome to Hill Farm.”

     They pushed Sam through a door. Inside the center dome was a forty-foot-high stack of containers welded together.

     They manhandled Sam through another door into a maze of interiors of more containers modified into workshops and control rooms.

     They took him up two flights of stairs to a door that opened into an extra-wide double-container conference room. An obese old man in a bathrobe sat at a circular conference table. There was a two-foot-wide tensor holo of the asteroid floating in the donut-hole of the table.  The old man looked up from his keyboard as the men entered the room. He lingered his view on Sam, then looked behind the men. “Where’s Gem?” he said.

     “She went back out to check out this guy’s ship,” Vince said. He shoved Sam into a chair across the table from the old man and gave Sam a final taser jolt. “He didn’t put up any fight.” 

     Sam couldn’t fight the taser. A bright blue halo lit up his body. It was like being hit by lightning. It felt like every muscle in his body got a massive cramp at the same time.    All he could do was wait it out.

     He tried to analyze the situation. He was surprised at the old man’s obesity. You didn’t see obese people in the Belt. Food was too expensive. Everybody in the Belt was on a starvation diet.

     The old man looked at viewscreen presentations on the walls and manipulated a touchpad and keyboard. A physical keyboard! Talk about the old days! Sam hadn’t seen a keyboard in years. How backward was this place? Sam was used to his virtual keyboard with Fling. Fling could interpret his every gesture.

     A man in green pajamas came into the room yawning and carrying a pistol. “We got him already? Great!” He glared at Sam and slapped the pistol down onto the table as he sat.

     “Don’t be hasty with that gun, Mort,” said the fat man. “We need a complete hearing before we kill him.

     “It had to be Anderson, who else would even know about it?” said Mort.  “It’s a very fishy coincidence that this guy shows up right here, right now.”

     “Yes, but what possible gain does Anderson get by knocking out our antenna? We’ll have it fixed in a day or two. Let’s investigate and get our facts straight before we take any irrevocable steps. The prisoner’s mass is under our dome now–ours for the taking if we need it. But maybe we need his information more than his mass.”

     He looked directly at Sam again. “Who are you? Why did you blast us with your mag drive? Who sent you? This kind of attack is a severe escalation. Who put you up to this?”

     Sam was still too tased to answer. “Whut?” he said. “Kill me?”

     Vince said, “We’ve been keeping him pretty tased down.”

     “Yes, kill,” said the old man. “I don’t know what you intended to accomplish with your EMP bomb. You couldn’t knock out any of our equipment because everything is hardened here in the Hub. You did knock down our antenna, and it hit Clay in the helmet and broke open his skull. You can’t do that to an inhabited site! You killed Clay Paloma. I’ve known Clayton for over thirty years.”

     The paralysis was fading and Sam was able to talk. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I left Interamnia three months ago headed for Patroclus and I planned to turn the final corner here on your iron companion. But it was gone.

     “I radioed you but got no reply. I assumed everybody was gone along with the iron. My ship calculated that without the iron, Hilco B, I wouldn’t be able to make the turn toward Patroclus. I had to try a close gravitomagnetic pulse on your carb, or I was headed out of the solar system. I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, I’m the one who got hurt, the feedback from all your underground iron blew out the corium connector to my main drive battery. If you can spare me a few pounds of corium, I’ll be on my way.”

     Mort said, “Okay, there, he admitted it. He’s the one who killed Clayton. What more do we need?”

     “Wait a minute, Mort. You want us to believe you just happened across us at this particular time? Who sent you? Who are you?”

     “I’m Sam Flandern,” Sam said. “Give me my helmet back, and I’ll have my ship send over my flight plan. You’ll see.”

     “That would be a good trick, your ship is over the horizon,” said the woman, entering the room, still wearing nothing but her transparent spacesuit.

“It’s just a slingship, 90-footer, no radio reply, and when I banged on the door it released its grapple and moved around over the horizon.”

     “The ship that bombed us stayed in orbit?” said the fat man. “What the hell is going on? Who are you? Who sent you?

     “Dad, his ship is a slingship with a 90-foot pressure hull. It ignored my commands and when I started to bang on the door it moved away and over the horizon.”

     “Maybe you should put on some clothes, Gem, this guy is an Earther,” the fat man said.

     “Well, I was already naked when I got the alert, and I didn’t stop to put on clothes. I was in the shower after our long day on high stress alert. I left the monitor station for ten minutes and came back toweling my hair and saw a space-suited guy on the surface screens. I ran straight to the airlock and put on a surface suit there without bothering to dress.

     “Plus, tits can be a good distraction. I thought maybe it might give me a few microseconds of reaction-time–I wanted to grab him before he had a chance to do any more harm,” she said.” She turned toward Sam. “Who moved the ship when I banged on the door? Who else is aboard?”

     “Nobody,” said Sam. “My ship is semi-autonomous. Her name is Fling.”

     The woman–Gem–went to a carrel on the table and clacked at the keyboard. The holo asteroid in the center of the table rotated until a bright dot showed up in a slow orbit. “Your ship will be back in nine hours.”

     Sam said, “Look, I’m sorry I knocked over your antenna but you didn’t seem to be using it anyway–you never answered when I radioed. Patroclus Control said you didn’t respond to their query, either.”

     “You called Patroclus?” The men looked at each other. “What did you tell them.”

     “I asked them for info about you, because the iron companion listed in the ephemeris was not here. They said that was news to them. Call them, talk to Bill Timmins, you’ll see.”

     “I say shoot him now,” said Mort, standing up.

     “Wait,” said Gem. “We’ve got to figure this out. Let’s not discuss it in front of him. We don’t need to let this guy listen in on our plans. We can kill him in the morning, if that’s what we decide.” She looked at Mort and her father and they hesitated, then nodded.

     “Lock him up until morning,” she said to Vince. “Wait, isn’t there somebody already in the Cooler?”

     Vincent said, “Red is in lockdown, that’s right. He got all drunked up last night after…you know. We could put this guy in with him.”

     “Oh, he was the one? I heard about that. Okay, you better put a tie strap on Red, too. We don’t want him killing this guy before Dad gives us the go-ahead.”

Next: In the Cooler