Slingship Sam, Chapter 8: In the Cooler


     They tased Sam again and half-carried him through the maze of re-purposed containers to a bare empty container, 8 feet wide, 8 feet high, 40 feet long. An empty shipping container with a guy sleeping in a corner. 

     They put a fresh tie around Sam’s right wrist and another around his right ankle and connected him to cleats in the wall of the shipping container. 

     The guy in the corner was snoring loudly.  Vince tried to wake him, but he was too stupefied. “Red! This is the guy who killed Clay. You leave him alone, hear? We have to wait until Mr. Hill decides what do with him.”

     But Red slobbered and returned to snoring, and Vince said “Gem told us to tie you, too, we don’t want you jumping the gun.” Red didn’t notice.

     Vince turned back to Sam. “If you have to piss or shit or anything, don’t worry, we’ll hose out the place after you’re gone.”

     Vincent closed the door and Sam heard him latch it. The light vanished and Sam was in the dark. As his eyes accustomed to the dark, a feeble glow emerged from a string of dim LEDs along the length of the container’s ceiling

     What time was it? His instinct was to ask Fling, but without his helmet he couldn’t contact Fling.

     He hadn’t spent a night without Fling in his ear since…since…he couldn’t remember the last time. Fling had been his constant companion for decades. He was disoriented by not knowing every aspect of his situation. Fling would have explained it to him.

     Sam had never been out of contact with Fling before.

     Sprawled in the dim container, he waited and listened. He heard Red snoring. Faintly from outside he heard an industrial 3D printer chugging away.

     Was this going to be the end of the line for him? What could he have done differently? He’d been a spaceman since he was a kid.

     Sam got into it because his high school buddy was the son of Frankie Helix, and they lived in Silicon Valley. Helix owned a tech company that went unicorn and he sold it for a ton of money and thought he’d laze at the beach for the rest of his life, but he couldn’t just sit around.

     Instead he joined a consortium that created a robot space probe. There were millions of asteroids in the belt. Some of them had corium just lying on their surface. If the probe spotted something, then a harvest robot was sent to harvest the corium.

     It was always NASA’s intention to use only robots. But robots turned out to be not capable enough to handle a robust market for corium ore. Robots were fine for guiding spaceships from point to point in space: that was something beyond human competence. Robots could do a lot of things but they couldn’t respond to changes in circumstances fast enough. And they were too far out of now with Earth to be usefully supervised by Houston Control.

     But the robot retrieval method often failed. Every asteroid was different and the robots were fabulously expensive. One of the Helix robots succeeded in bringing back a load of corium. When the others decided to sell the corium in the blazing-hot market, Helix withdrew from the consortium and didn’t sell his share of the corium. He used it to make a corium-powered spaceship and go back out for more, and on this trip NASA forbade him to do it.

     He and his son and Sam and a few other guys went into space anyway. They returned to Earth with 180 tons of corium and had to land it in Europe because of NASA’s restrictions. He made fifty six million dollars on that first strike. It seemed so easy. (Other than half of them dying–but now Sam knew how to survive in the belt.)

     Sam bought a super-luxury Palazzo Superior motor home, laid in a corium floorplate, added a zero-grav life-support module, sealed it all the way around, and lifted into low earth orbit on a big commercial lift vehicle–a massive corium-framed warehouse for containerized freight. Fling couldn’t lift off from Earth surface–the power required would melt her corium plates. The gravity field was too thick. But once in orbit, Fling could go just about anywhere.  for the Palazzo Superior and lit out for the belt. The one thing he didn’t get was a permit from the United States government, and that’s why he couldn’t go back.

     But he’d never again made that much money. He couldn’t sell it on Earth any more, of course. The price has dropped drastically. The more corium that arrives at Earth, the more slingships come out looking for more corium. Corium was just a commodity, now, and only the big companies can make a profit on it.

     He’d go back if he could. Space was no place to live. The Earth amnesty fee was $20,000,000, or ten years in prison. When he found out he was an outlaw, five years after he left Earth, he laughed. He had twenty five million in his pocket and was sure he had a line on a big strike. But things didn’t turn out so well and twenty million might as well be twenty billion. He spent seven years on Interamnia and never made more than $10,000 a week. If he’d never spent a penny he could have saved three and a half million dollars, but things are very expensive on Interamnia, especially a social life.

     Then Frankie Helix died, and there was an election on Earth and a new head of NASA was appointed, and suddenly there was no work for outlaws on Interamnia, not even useful outlaws.

     Frankie Helix was just one of the hundreds of billionaires created in the corium boom. And that was 30 years ago. Now, corium was just the cornerstone of space industry, a commodity.

     And now, he was stuck on Hilco. How was he going to get out of here? These folks had to be the last remnants, left behind when the iron was slung away. The leader was fat–was he hogging all the remaining food? Who was that guy, anyway? What had Fling told him…he was hobbled without access to Fling. His secondary brain. He didn’t have to remember stuff, he let Fling do it.

     All he knew was they said they were going to kill him. Not this moment, but as soon as Mr. Hill authorized it. Hill, Hill, Fling mentioned something about William Hill. That was the guy who won the Asteroid Lotto long ago, that’s right. The sign on the inner dome said Hill Farm, the asteroid was Hilco. Fling said Hilco was owned by William Hill, was that the fat guy?

     Lost in thought, he automatically said, “Fling, show me a picture of William Hill.”

     Fling did not respond, but Red did. He stirred from his coma and lurched up onto one elbow. “I don’t have any pictures on me. What do you need a picture of Mr. Hill for? Are you one of the new guys?”

     “Yeah, I guess so,” Sam said.

     Red said, “What’s with the tie straps, what did I do? Oh well, they was right to lock me up, I was way out of line. What are you in for?” He looked wobbily at Sam, then more intently. “Who are you?”

     “I’m Sam, Sam Flandern. I’m a slingship pilot.”

     Red relaxed. “Yeah, we have a couple other new pilots, we’re going to need ’em. I’m Red Raufbold, I’ve been a mining engineer here for thirty years, they don’t need me so much any more now that the iron’s gone. It’s like I’m useless now, and I’ve been drinking too much and last night it got out of hand when I found out Clay was killed. So, what did you do? Why’d they throw you in the Cooler?”

     “Well, I was in my slingship on my way to Enceladus and I was going to turn a corner on the iron here but it was gone, and then I blew out my mag drive trying to make the turn on Hilco–“

     Red yelled, “So, you’re the one who killed Clay Paloma?”

     “No,” Sam said, “look, I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody–“

     “But you did,” Red shouted, pulling at his tie strap. “You knocked down the radio tower and it hit Clay in the helmet and broke open his skull. You can’t do that to an inhabited site! Why’d you do it? Are you a spy? Are you working for Anderson?”

     “I radioed you guys and there was no answer,” Sam said. “Why didn’t you reply?”

     “We can’t let anybody know we’re here,” Red said.

     “Why not?”

     Red blearily paused and became wary. “I ain’t saying a thing.”

     Sam said, “You shouldn’t be letting the fat man get all the food. I’ll give you a thousand MREs if you help me get back to my ship.”

     Red laughed. “Your MREs might not be as valuable as you think. I got a little out of line last night and they were right to lock me up, but this farm is the best place I’ve found since I’ve been in the Belt. I ain’t leaving, and I ain’t helping you leave. And I ain’t talking to you any more.”

     Sam heard the door unlock and then it opened and Vince stood there with a knife. “Mr. Hill has made his decision,” he said. He went to Red and cut his ties. “You go on ahead, Red, down to the green. Don’t make any more trouble.”

     He turned to Sam and said, “Don’t you make any trouble, either.” He cut Sam’s ties and stood him up and tied Sam’s hands behind his back. Vince and the other goon led Sam through the maze of containers, down a few flights of stairs past a gravity inversion where down became up and then up a few flights and then stopped in a double container with comfortable furnishings and windows. “Now we wait for Mr. Hill’s signal,” Vincent said. “He’s going to read the verdict at dawn.”

     “Dawn?” said Sam. And abruptly, the windows were streaming in with light. Sam saw greenery out the window. “Okay, let’s go,” said Vince.

     He shoved Sam shoved out the door. Sam was astonished to see a wide open prairie, the vast indoor space of Hill Farm with terraces of crops leading down to the flat center of the Common Green.

     Fifty or sixty people stood there murmuring to each other but they fell silent when they saw Sam. The fat man was there.

     Vince shoved Sam down. “On your knees in front of William Hill,” he said.

     “This is the man who initiated the electromagnetic pulse that killed Clay,” the fat man said. “Also, he informed Patroclus Control that our iron has been launched.”

     The crowd gasped and began moving forward. William Hill put up a hand and they stopped. “No, our investigation has shown that this piece of crap did not act with malignant intent. And The Plan is more important than justice, in this case. There’s too much work to be done. We can’t bring back Clayton Paloma, but we can replace his labor with that of our new slave, Sam Flandern. Sam, I sentence you to–what’s our worst job right now, Ted?”

     “Surface work. Just like Clay was doing.”

     “No, said William Hill, “we aren’t going to give Sam access to the surface. Where the ships are. No, Sam Flandern, I sentence you to manual labor: hauling shit up-hill for the rest of your natural life.”