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  • Miranda and the Space Pirates
    or
    How Haven Rock Was Saved


    by Mike Combs

    mikecombs@aol.com

    Copyright © 1997


    To the real Miranda. May your life be as rich in adventure as your fictional counterpart.
    But most importantly, may your future be as unbounded in opportunity as hers.


    November 15th, 2096: Daddy's as mad as I think I've ever seen him.

            He's gotten himself that way watching the news on TV about the Cosmic Children Cult. We try to be open to people of different religions here in New Brazil (we're one of the older habitats in the standard High Earth Orbit about halfway between the Earth and Lunar Orbit). The Cosmic Children were immigrants from Earth who told us they were facing persecution there. We opened our doors to them, and tried to benignly ignore the nuttier parts of their religion.

            Then it turned out one of the tenets of their religion was adult-child sex. Practically every member of the group was now up on child molestation charges. Daddy's been trying to shield me from this a bit because he doesn't think his daughter knows anything about sex, much less pedophillia. But I'm not just a stupid kid anymore.

            But it wasn't just the cultists which had Daddy riled. It was the spokesperson for the Ethical Fairness Authority on television telling us all we can't judge the Cosmic Children by our standards of ethics. He said the cultists had their own standard of ethics which they lived by, and which we had to respect. I thought it was a pretty sure bet he didn't have a young daughter living in New Brazil.

            But Daddy did, so he saw things differently than the EFA. He hated the Ethical Fairness Authority because despite the fact "ethical" is in their title, they don't believe in absolute ethics. They say concepts of morality differ from society to society, from habitat to habitat, and although they don't attempt to impose any kind of "arbitrary system of ethics" on anyone, still insist that all ethical systems have a "component of fairness" to them. I notice "fair" pretty much seems to match up with whatever they happen to think is right. They call themselves "ethical relativists", but Daddy calls them "reprobates".

            You have to understand, Daddy and Momma are very religious, and belong to one of the older religions which began back on Earth before the Breakout into space. Now the EFA was starting to meddle around in our church, and this had Daddy up in arms. The EFA was setting up an "advisory board" for our Sunday schools. Seems there were some things about our classes which had them bugged.

            For example, they noted that Jesus had these thirteen disciples, but none of them were women. To them, this was sexism on Jesus' part. Then they went on about how the New Testament treated the handicapped as people who needed to be healed by Jesus right away, instead of "vital citizens with a valid contribution to make to society". But they were even more down on the Old Testament. They considered some of the passages about the Jews being God's chosen people, and the admonitions to destroy the enemy down to the women, children, and cattle, as "blatant racism with advocacy of genocide". I thought this was silly because nobody in our church was even Jewish as far as I knew, and we considered Jesus' gift of salvation to be available to all people of all races.

            The elders of the church were telling the Ethical Fairness Authority that they couldn't simply change the Scriptures because they were the sacred word of God. But this didn't seem to have any meaning to the EFA. They seemed to view our religion as a convenient mythology which we had created for ourselves, and could just as easily re-write to make them happy.

            Daddy railed on about it at least once a week. He was a man of deep religious beliefs, and so was very much in favor of maintaining the separation of Church and State. He'd just about had enough, and the EFA apologizing for a bunch of child molesters was the last straw.

            "I tell you Momma," he said, "There's a stinking decay creeping up on our culture. Its origins are Earth. For our ancestors, leaving Earth was enough to get away from it. But now High Earth Orbit is getting just as corrupt and regimented and freedom-killing as Earth." He stopped to take a breath and come to a decision. "It's time to move on, time to get even further away from this stinking mess."

            "What are you advocating," Momma asked, "Packing up the family, and moving out to L-5?"

            "Oh heck, that's no better. Both Lagrange points are just as morally far gone as our orbit nowadays." He had a gleam in his eye. "No, I'm thinking much further away. I'm thinking the Belt."

            "The Belt!" Wilbur whooped (Wilbur is my little brother). "Cooool!! We can be Belt miners!!!"

            "Daddy, we can't go to the Belt!" I cried. "There's hardly anybody out there! I wouldn't have any friends!"

            "Hush, Miranda," Momma said. "Grown-up talk."

            "No, Honey," Daddy said, "The children need to join this conversation too. After all, it is their future we're talking about. Heck, they're the reason I want to do this. If it was just you and me, Hon, I'd say let's just tough it out 'till our time is past. But I don't want our children growing up in this kind of society. I want them to have the freedom to live as they choose, the way our pioneering ancestors did when they left Earth in the first place. It's time to spread out again."

            "Daddy, you can't be serious about this," Momma said. "What in the System would we do for a living in the asteroid belt?"

            "Hey, like Wilbur said, we become asteroid miners. I don't know whether you've noticed or not, but all the Earth-approaching asteroids are starting to get mined out, at least where hydrogen is concerned. The ice mine at the lunar South Pole has been a ghost-town for years now. The price of hydrogen keeps going up. Importing it from Phobos has even become profitable. We'll mine hydrogen, and send it back to the Inner System.

            "But that's only half of it," Daddy continued with enthusiasm. "We'll also build habitats out there, and sell lots to immigrants. Believe me, we're not the only ones getting sick of the situation here. There're lots of others who feel the same way we do, and there'll be more as the years go on. If we Anderson's become one of the founding fathers of the new communities out in the Belt, we'll be set for life, not to mention free to do what we want, and worship however we choose."

            "I don't see our family being able to mount this type of venture," Momma protested.

            "Well, we wouldn't do it all by ourselves," Daddy said. "We get together with three or four other families, and pool our capital. We can make this work."

            Not for the first time, I wished I went to public school. Then I could use school as an objection to this crazy idea. But Wilbur and I have been getting home-schooled by Momma all our lives. Our parents don't care for all that New Age junk the public schools are teaching now.

            "We'll discuss this some more later," Momma said diplomatically.

            But I was already getting scared. Daddy had that look in his eye. I knew he was a determined man, and wouldn't give up until he'd made this dream of his a reality. But his dream meant all of us saying good-bye to our friends, no doubt forever, to go live in a barren, rocky wilderness. He couldn't be serious.

    April 10th, 2097: Daddy's serious. He has the rest of the Anderson clan talked into his dream, and even got the Bowman's, the Tanaka's, and the Franklin's roped into this. He's bought a fifteen-year-old passenger transport with our combined family fortunes. Today he got us all together on a shuttle to show us the ship coming into dock.

            He's named the ship the William Penn. I've seen lots of intercolonial transports, and planetary exploration craft. I even like to build models of them. But I've never seen anything like this.

    The William Penn

    Model and photo courtesy of the Free Trader's Space Station website.

            It's a mass-driver ship, so it's a thin, spindly, lattice-like structure three and a half kilometers long. Hundreds of rectangular solar arrays jut out above and below. As the tail-end of the ship passed by, I could see the exhaust putting out. The mass-driver was using liquefied oxygen for reaction mass (it's dirt cheap, and vaporizes on release so it doesn't create a hazard for anyone). I could see the little puffs of evaporating oxygen coming out the tail, flashing like a strobe light on one of its lower settings.

            As over three kilometers of guide-wire-encased mass-driver passed by, I could see that in the gaps between the solar arrays were pill-shaped oxygen tanks, tanks for other liquids, and boxy cargo modules. The mass-driver engine was so long and slender that lots of the load had to be distributed along its length just so it wouldn't buckle under power.

            The ship was continually slowing, so it seemed to take forever for the front end to come into view. There were two pairs of habitation spheres on long spokes, counter-rotating for artificial gravity. Imagine a baton twirler who's such hot stuff that she can not only twirl two batons in one hand, but keep them spinning in opposite directions, and you begin to see the setup. Now put baseballs on the ends of each baton, and you get the picture.

            I was appalled at the small size of the four habitation spheres. Each only looked to be about four or five stories tall. There were four families involved in this nutty scheme. Were we supposed to spend a year and a half cooped up in one of those tiny balls? This is crazy. But there's no way Daddy's going to get talked out of it at this point.

            I took a quick census of the other youngsters among our four clans. Aside from a couple of nineteen-year-olds, they're all either babies or toddlers. There's no one here my age.

            I floated over to my Uncle Wes for a hug and some reassurance. I love Uncle Wes. He has my daddy's same jet-black hair, big chin, and broad shoulders, although he's a bit shorter. A bit younger too. He told me not to worry, and that soon there'll lots of kids my age in the Belt.

            "And when you're one of the first," he said, "You get to be their queen."

            Miranda Anderson, Queen of the Belt.

    October 15th, 2097: Tomorrow is the launch window for the asteroid Daddy and Uncle Wes have chosen: 2053TAH. I spent most of the day saying good-bye to my friends, and crying a lot.

            In the afternoon, I went outside to get one last good look at my home.

            New Brazil was one of the first Model Three Bernal Spheres. Model Three's are over six kilometers in diameter, so there's a blue sky overhead, and natural rainfall. Today it was partly cloudy, but through gaps in the clouds I could still see the far side of the habitat straight overhead. Only you can't see much at that distance except the equatorial lakes.

            The climate is what they call South American: warm and sunny most the year. Since New Brazil is one of the older habitats, our trees are good and tall; great for climbing. It bothered me to think that we were heading to a place with no trees, and no clouds.

            This "pioneering the far frontier" junk was for the birds. People should just stay where they're at.

    October 16th, 2097: Today we undocked, and left New Brazil. Our acceleration is continuous, but it's only around one-twentieth of a G, so we'll spend over a month just spiraling up away from the Earth. Then it's a seventeen-month-long half-spiral to a bunch of dead, drifting rocks. I can hardly wait.

    October 18th, 2097: I found out to my horror today that ship-board life is going to be more than just school once a day. Momma put me in charge of the Animals Deck. Which means lots of feeding, but even more hauling away poop to the greenhouse. At least we don't have cows or horses on board (they're still frozen embryos at this point), but there're tons of goats, chickens, geese, and rabbits. And every one of them drop their own distinctive variety of poop.

            Wilbur (the insufferable little twerp) got dock maintenance detail. At the axis of the William Penn (up on the very front) is a spherical docking bay. Uncle Wes is in charge of keeping it and the space craft there ship-shape, and Wilbur's his assistant.

            That's the work that, by all rights, I should've gotten. Not only would it have been nice to work with Uncle Wes, but I know more about the ships we have on board than goofy little Wilbur ever will.

            There are three Star Darters. When I first heard the name, I expected something sleek and streamlined, and was disappointed to see these boxy little things about the size of a minivan. There were also seven EVA repair pods; both piloted and remote-controlled. Wilbur gets to tinker with this kind of hardware while I get to haul away poop for stupid geese who peck at me.

            I complained to Momma that Wil and I got each other's assignment. She kept telling me the work I'm doing is important, and if it's not done right, the life-support system will get messed up. She thought between Wilbur and myself, I was the one with the maturity to handle a job this important.

            Life stinks, but nowhere more so than on the Animals Deck.

    November 20th, 2097: Well, we had a bit of excitement today!

            Today was the day we crossed the orbit of the moon. I was on the Animals Deck feeding the turkeys when suddenly there was a distant "whump" sound.

            Then all the lights went out.

            As a shudder passed through the deck, the turkeys began to squawk. I decided to just stand still and wait. The emergency lights were always supposed to come on if a power failure lasted more than a few seconds.

            I was startled by a much closer sound: a muffled crack. Then came a sound which no one traveling in space likes to hear: the sound of air rushing out a pressurized compartment. The low-pitched roar only lasted a few seconds before becoming too soft to hear.

            Then the emergency lights came on, thank Heavens. I dumped the feed bucket down in front of the turkeys, and immediately started making my way to the Bridge. I knew better than to expect the elevators to be working, and headed straight to the ladder.

            It was emergency lighting on the Bridge too. Momma and Daddy were there. They were trying to find out what'd happened, but, since all the instrumentation was deader than a doornail, were having no luck. I came up beside Momma, and she put one arm around me.

            "Daddy, what happened?"

            "Well, Sweety, it seems like we ran into something. A couple of somethings from the sound of it. I don't think it's a coincidence this happened right as we were passing lunar orbit. I think somebody at L-5 got sloppy."

            I was almost too scared to ask the next question. "What decompressed?"

            "We don't know that yet, Miranda," said Momma. "If we don't get the power back on here in a second, we'll do a deck by deck check."

            Just then Uncle Wes came down the ladder. Even in the dim lighting, I could see he was pale as a ghost, and this frightened me worse than anything.

            "Can we run the Comm system on emergency power?" he asked frantically.

            "Here on the Bridge, yes, but not on the rest of the ship," Daddy told him. "We'd have to make the connections manually."

            "We've got to get power back up. We've got to get the Comm on-line..."

            "What? What's the matter?" Daddy asked.

            Uncle Wes looked up at them. "It's the Docking Bay that's lost atmosphere. I left Wilbur re-fueling the Star Darters."

    * * *

            Daddy and Uncle Wes began trying to figure out why the power was out. As near as they could tell, there was a break in the power bus somewhere between the passenger spheres and the biggest part of the solar arrays. This meant an EVA repair, which meant it wasn't going to get fixed anytime soon.

            Uncle Wes was stroking his broad chin, and thinking. "Hey, you know those big electric motors up at the axis, the ones for overcoming frictional losses in our spin?"

            "Yeah?" said Daddy.

            "When I was looking over the specs for this ship, it'd occurred to me that if there ever was an interruption of power, you could swap the leads on those motors, making them generators. We'd be using our spin to crank out juice. We could do it for quite a while before we noticed ourselves getting any lighter. We can always make up the difference later."

            "Get right on it," Daddy ordered. "Momma and I are going to suit up, get to the Docking Bay, and try to patch our breach. Miranda, you stay here. When Wes gets the power back up, you watch the monitors, and keep us all apprised of our situation."

            "OK, Daddy."

            Everyone headed up the ladder. I had to wait in the unusually-quiet, dimly-lit Bridge for about fifteen minutes. Then the overhead lights flashed to brilliance, and the monitors winked on. I began punching up camera views of the axis, and the Docking Bay. Uncle Wes was in low-G, and was finishing up his re-wiring job on the spin motors. Daddy and Momma were in space suits, floating over to inspect a hole the size of a washing machine in one of the walls.

            "Daddy," I began, "Is there... do you see..."

            "No, Honey, Wilbur's not in sight. Keep your faith. I think he's holed up in one of the garages. Try to raise him on the All Channels."

            I searched desperately for the right button, and finally found it. "Wilbur... Wilbur... Please answer."

            "Miranda? Yeah, I'm OK," came from the intercom. "Where have you guys been? I've been calling and calling."

            Wilbur was alive.

            He turned his monitor back on, and I could see him floating in the passenger seat of one of the Star Darters.

            "Daddy, Momma, everybody, Wil's OK. He's sitting in one of the Darters."

            "That's real good news, Sweety," Daddy said. "Patch me to him."

            "You're on."

            "Wilbur?"

            "Daddy! Hi."

            "Hey, there. What's your situation, young man?"

            "Well, I was topping off the tanks in Darter Two when the lights went out. Then the pressure started to drop, which of course made the automatics slam the garage hatch shut."

            "You just sit tight. Momma and I are patching the hole. Shouldn't take more than an hour or two. Then we'll re-pressurize the bay, and get you out of that air lock."

            Momma and Daddy started to work. I tried to keep Wilbur company, so he wouldn't be scared. We'd been chatting for about twenty minutes when I saw on his video feed that there was a yellow light flashing on his panel.

            "What's that?"

            Wilbur looked up at me seriously. "It's the CO2 indicator."

            I suddenly remembered the confining space Wilbur was in. The garage (that's what we called these little airlocks) wasn't a whole lot bigger than the Star Darter Wil sat in.

            Trying to keep calm, I signaled Daddy.

            "Daddy, Wilbur's got a caution light on his CO2 gauge."

            Daddy looked up from the patch work. "That's odd. The scrubbers in the Darter ought to be taking care of the carbon dioxide build-up."

            Wilbur looked sheepish now. "They're in the Greenhouse discharging right now. That's what I did right before starting the fuel transfer."

            Uncle Wes was back on the Bridge now. "How long on the repair?"

            Daddy looked at the mass of wreckage, repair sheets, and epoxy globs. "At least another two hours at the rate we've been going."

            "Can I help?" Uncle Wes asked him.

            "No. Stay there on the Bridge. Momma and I had to seal and vent the axis tunnel just to get in here. It would take you too long to cycle through, and besides, with another person we'd just start to get in each other's way."

            "Guys, I'm staring to get a headache," said Wilbur. He wasn't just being a big baby this time. He knew, as did we all, that a headache was one of the first symptoms of CO2 poisoning.

            "How do we pump up the garages?" Momma asked.

            "No, I know what you're thinking," Daddy replied. "There're no compressed air tanks in the garages. We re-pressurize them by just cracking a valve from the garage to the rest of the Docking Bay."

            "Is there no way to rig a line from one of the tanks to the garage valve?" she wanted to know.

            "I don't think so. I don't think we can make the necessary connections."

            Uncle Wes was pacing the deck. "We've got to figure out a way to get some oxygen to Wilbur. Wait a minute!" He spun around to the console. "Wilbur has a big tank of liquefied oxygen in that Star Darter. Can't we use that?"

            "Wilbur's main problem is not oxygen deprivation, it's CO2 poisoning," Momma reminded us. "All the oxygen in the world's not going to do him any good if the carbon dioxide builds up to the point that it..." Momma trailed off, upset.

            "No, this can work!" Daddy interjected. "Wilbur, can you hear me?"

            "Yeah, I'm here Daddy."

            "OK, this is what I want you to do. Make sure the hatch on the Darter is closed tight, then I want you to pump the garage down to vacuum. When you're down to zero pressure, stop the pumps, then go ahead and stir your O2 tank past the danger point. It's alright; when you overpressure the tank, the vent valve will open. Keep venting into the garage until the pressure's back up to normal. Then open the Darter hatch. We can do this as many times as need be. Each time you pump down the garage, you pump out the CO2 that you've been exhaling. Then we replace it with a pure oxygen atmosphere."

            "Wilbur will need more than a pure oxygen atmosphere," Momma said. "If there's no water vapor in the air he's breathing, it'll be really bad for his respiratory system. Wilbur, each time you re-pressurize the garage, give your main engine one or two little low-thrust burns. That'll put some water vapor into the air."

            "That's good thinking, Momma," Daddy told her. "Not only will it help with that, it'll help warm things up a little. That oxygen is going to come out of that tank mighty cold."

            While Daddy and Momma returned to the breach repair, Wilbur dogged his hatch, pumped down the garage, and over-pressurized his oxygen tank. Two flashes of blue haze around his engines indicated two brief engine firings. When the garage pressure indicator turned green, he slowly opened the Darter hatch, and sniffed the outside air.

            "How is it?" I asked him.

            "Fine, it's just fine. Criminy, it's cold, though."

            "Try to find something to bundle up in. You're going to be in there a while."

            Over the next two hours, we repeated the process twice. Every time Wilbur's CO2 indicator would flash yellow, he would pump out the bad air, and make more air. After a while, things even got a little dull.

            But shortly after the third flush of the airlock, Daddy and Momma got the hole patched up and the Docking Bay re-pressurized. I ran up the ladder, floated down the axis, and was flying into the Docking Bay just as Momma was pulling Wilbur out of the garage. Uncle Wes was kissing Wil on the head, and seemed a bit shaky.

            "Gosh, look at the mess in here," Momma said, looking about. "Whatever that was we slammed into turned into shrapnel and peppered everything. Things won't be slow for a while. We've got lots of repair work in here."

            "We'll probably never know what it was," Daddy remarked. "One thing's for sure, we won't have to worry about man-made debris where we're going. We've just left Earth and all its garbage behind for good."

    December 5th, 2097: I've picked up a new ship-board responsibility. It can sometimes get tedious, but it's closer to being fun than working the Animals Deck.

            The solar panels on the William Penn are putting out plenty of power for our needs right now, but they're mostly designed for the Inner System. We're heading further out from the sun, and as we do, the sun gets a bit smaller and a bit dimmer. But there's an easy way we can make up for this.

            We have on board enormous rolls of aluminized mylar plastic which we can use to build solar reflectors. It's my job to oversee the refit of the solar panels on the Penn. I'm using one of the remotes to monitor while the robots build rectangular frameworks out of wire no thicker than coat-hanger wire. The frames are about three meters by five meters. Once the aluminized mylar is stretched across the framework, fastened, and cut, you've got a handy reflector. Attach one to either edge of a solar panel at a certain angle, and you've doubled the solar power hitting the panel. The job mostly involves running herd on the robot crews, watching them to make sure they don't get confused and start to do something stupid. But at least I can pretend I really am out there in space with them.

    June 14th, 2098: We crossed the orbit of Mars today, although we weren't really close enough to see anything. There're only about 40,000 people there. That's a population less than that of some of our mid-sized orbital habitats. But don't get me wrong. The deserts of Mars are like a thriving metropolis compared to where we're headed.

    August 22nd, 2098: Daddy noticed me writing in my journal today, and asked if he could have a look. After encrypting some of the more personal entries, I handed my PC over to him.

            When Daddy brought it back to me, he was very complimentary. He said Momma had done a good job with my schooling, and that I had the vocabulary of someone much older. Daddy even thought future generations might want to read my account of our journey, and recommended I go back and add some things explaining who we are, a little about where we came from, and what we were all about, so someone not in the family could read the story and still understand. I promise him I will.

    February 3rd, 2099: Today we finally got close enough to 2053TAH to see it as a small disk. The telescopes revealed a dark, ugly, meteor-scarred lump. But of course to Daddy it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

            The asteroid belt is not like what you see in movies. In movies you see hundreds of rocks tumbling around close by; so tightly packed that they frequently crash into each other. But the real Belt doesn't look like that. It's just like more of space. Maybe three or four of the stars you're looking at are asteroids, but how would you tell without a telescope? Dull.

    February 4th, 2099: We shut down the drive today. Daddy and Uncle Wes touched down on the surface of 2053TAH in Star Darter One. You'd think Daddy was Neil Armstrong the way he tried to be profound and ceremonial. He lectured for a while about the pilgrims at Plymouth, and then solemnly declared that henceforth, 2053TAH would be known as Haven Rock.

    February 15th, 2099: Our first order of business was to set up the first primitive habitat. Daddy calls it a "Shake and Bake" habitat (although the computer talks about the "Cole Technique"). I don't see where the shaking comes into it, but the baking is easy to understand.

            First, Daddy, Uncle Wes, and Mr. Tanaka dug a hole down to the very core of Haven Rock. There they placed a giant tank of water, and then sealed the tunnel back up.

            Then we deployed the Portable Solar Concentrator. The Concentrator is a giant disk made of two sheets of plastic sealed together at the edges only. One layer is transparent plastic, the other, aluminized mylar. When it was deployed, the modest amounts of air trapped inside were enough to completely inflate it in the vacuum of space. It wound up bulging on both sides, shaped kind of like a magnifying lens. Now if you point it at the sun, you have a reflective Solar Concentrator several kilometers across. The focus is not real good; not really a point, but instead a smeared-out streak several meters long. But it was good enough for our purposes.

            Uncle Wes and Daddy maneuvered the Concentrator until Haven Rock was at the focus. The asteroid, slowly turning on its axis, roasted like a pig on a spit. Over a few days, the surface actually began to glow red, and soften. But the heat traveled only very slowly through the body of the big rock. The surface was yellow-hot, and thoroughly molten before the water tank at the core was very much above the boiling point.

            But today the steam pressure in the tank finally became too great, and the tank ruptured. The steam blew the molten glob of nickel-iron into a huge bubble of low-grade steel. I saw Daddy holding his breath, praying that there wouldn't be a blowout on one side. But we lucked out. The globe wound up a bit on the lumpy side, but stayed intact. It rapidly hardened as it ceased expanding, and now we had the basic structure of our habitat.

    February 22nd, 2099: We've spent the last few days starting to outfit the habitat. The first thing we did was turn loose the replicators.

            The replicators were machines not much bigger than a trailer home, and essentially were mini-ore refineries/manufacturing plants. Given solar power and a supply of asteroidal ore, they can make all of the components of their own design, and then assemble those components into a duplicate. Two can make four... four can make eight... you get the picture. In no time at all you can ramp up to any level of industrial productivity desired.

            While that was going on, Uncle Wes used laser cutters to carve a great hole out of the Haven Rock sphere. The hole is where a giant window about ten city blocks in area goes. Daddy and Mr. Tanaka have almost completed assembly of the big parabolic mirror which will gather sunlight, and focus it though the window and into the interior of our big steel bubble. The mirror is much larger than the mirrors I've seen on the kind of habitats I'm used to. But the sunlight's dimmer this far out from the sun, so we have to scale up our collecting mirrors accordingly. The habitat looks so small attached to this giant reflector.

            Another parabolic mirror (a much smaller one) will be mounted at the very center of our new world on three cables. This one will reflect the sunlight coming in through the window to evenly illuminate the inner surface.

    March 3rd, 2099: Using another asteroid on a turntable, we've been spinning Haven Rock up to speed. Soon the centrifugal force will reach 1G at the equator. At the same time, we've been feeding the oxygen from the ore-smelting operation into the interior. That, plus a bit of nitrogen and water vapor, gives us a breathable atmosphere.

    March 5th, 2099: Wilbur and I watched with interest from the William Penn as Momma and Daddy installed the chair-lift system which will enable us to easily travel from the axis of Haven Rock down to where there's gravity. We're starting to look forward to riding that chair-lift, as we've been cooped up on this tiny little passenger transport for far too many months.

    March 15th, 2099: Today Daddy let Wilbur and I into the interior of Haven Rock for the first time. It's pretty ugly. The interior surface is all dark grey; runny and streaky with melted slag. But a bit of topsoil and vegetation will fix that. For now, Wilbur and I are just mighty glad to be off of that dang ship, and out in the sunshine and open spaces where you can just run and run and run. Which we did, till we collapsed, giggling and exhausted.

            Daddy sure looked happy watching us have fun.

    March 16th, 2099: Now we start on the landscaping. The robots have a simple way of getting the asteroidal soil to us: they just dump it away from the axis, and let it come sliding and rolling down the curving inner surface of the sphere. Then Wilbur and I use our little electric bulldozers to push it around to where it's needed.

    March 17th, 2099: I'm really ticked off at Daddy today. I was pushing some soil quite a ways up on the sphere when he told me that I'm pushing it too high, and to just keep following the equator. I found out to my dismay Daddy has no intention of landscaping the entire inner surface of the habitat, only a narrow ribbon of land running around the equator.

            "No!" I cried. "It'll look ugly! This melted slag junk is so horrid-looking! At least let me go up to 45 degrees! Please!"

            "No, sweetheart," he responded. "No more than 25 degrees on either side." Then he hopped up on the bulldozer to put an arm around my shoulder. "You have to understand, we aren't going to be in this habitat forever. This is just a place to live until we can get well-established financially. Once we're far enough out of the red, we'll be building a much bigger, much better habitat. Haven Rock's going to be a bit on the primitive side, but we won't be here long, I promise. At least not past the point where you're having kids who can complain to you about it!"

            Then he's laughing, but I'm not going to crack a smile. Right now, I'm not thinking about having kids. I'm thinking about what an awful-looking place this is going to be.

            This sucks.

    April 11th, 2099: We don't have separate agricultural rings on this podunk little habitat, so we're going to grow our crops and raise our animals in the same main sphere where we're supposed to live. I had so looked forward to finally getting away from the stench of the Animals Deck back on the Penn for once and for all, but I bet this dinky little place will smell all over. This is insane.

            At least now that the grass is starting to grow, this place has greened up a bit (at least along one narrow little strip). But now that farmlands, feeding pastures, and some small buildings are going in, I'm just starting to grasp how tiny this ball is. It's only about a kilometer in circumference; no bigger than the kind of Bernal Sphere grandma used to live in when she was a little girl. Someone can be on the completely far side of the sphere, and if you look at them directly overhead (and shield out the glare from the central solar reflector) you can actually see them waving back at you!

            And our homes aren't really homes at all, just fiberglass shacks. Daddy said all we need is a bit of privacy, and something to keep the rain off our heads (not real rain, it's just water from a sprinkler system). Since there'll never be any high winds, and no seasonal temperature variations, he said it's all we need for now.

            "But Daddy, we've got to have seasons! It'll be so dull around here without Spring or Fall!" But Daddy acted like I didn't even say anything.

            "We'll have seasons in the next habitat, dear," Momma said.

            The situation continues to get suckier by the minute.

    April 27th, 2099: Daddy gathered up the rest of the Anderson's, rounded up the Franklin's, Tanaka's, and Bowman's, and then sat us all down to a big meal. He asked each of us to say what we're thankful for. But I'm sitting in a sphere of congealed, low-grade steel hundreds of millions of kilometers further away from the sun than any friend that I ever had is. So needless to say, I couldn't think of a single thing I was grateful for, and, after an awkward silence, they passed over me.

    May 5th, 2099: Uncle Wes left us today. The two or three nearest asteroids are starting to get mined out, so he's going to take the William Penn over to a slightly more distant asteroid designated 2081GKO, and then push it back to Haven Rock. Spectroscopic scans have revealed 2081GKO to be ore and volatile-rich.

            The replicators have not yet churned out enough excess oxygen to use for reactions mass, so for this one trip, the William Penn will use asteroidal dirt for reaction mass. When the Belt gets a bit more populated, this will be a no-no; a hazard to navigation and other habitats. But right now, it's just wide open spaces out here, so nobody will mind a few tons of rocks and dirt whizzing through space at several kilometers per second.

    June 11th, 2099: Today we began construction of the first pressure vessel which will hold the hydrogen which we've been mining.

            The construction technique is interesting, and they let Wilbur and I take shifts monitoring the process. First we assembled a giant balloon about a city block in diameter. Then we started spinning it up in the Deposition Cradle. The replicators are starting to turn out ingots of pure metals. We take ingots of aluminum, and feed them into the focus of a large solar concentrator. The intense rays heat the aluminum not to its melting point, but to its boiling point. The aluminum vaporizes, and then sprays out onto the surface of the rotating balloon, were it quickly cools and solidifies. We continuously move the vaporizer back and forth along the surface of the spinning balloon, evenly building up layer upon layer of metal. The process is called vacuum vapor deposition, and in the end it will result in a large, strong, aluminum sphere with no seams; perfect for use as a pressure vessel. (Later on, we'll use the same technique to build the second habitat.) The tank will be nice and shiny, which will make it easier to keep the hydrogen inside liquefied as it'll reflect away the heat of the sun.

            We also instructed the replicators to begin building a NERVA rocket. A NERVA is a kind of nuclear fission engine using liquid hydrogen fuel. We'll dock the rocket to our tank, and when the tank's full and ready to be sent to the Inner System, the NERVA will provide the propulsion. It's very primitive technology; NERVA is over a century old, but it's quick and cheap. A bit dirty, but we don't expect the rocket to come back. After it's done its job, our customers can dump it into the sun for all we care.

    September 9th, 2099: I was in the Monitoring Room of the Control Shack with Daddy, and was looking at asteroid orbital plots when I saw something interesting.

            "Hey, Daddy, this asteroid's going to pass within a kilometer of us in a few days. It's pretty small, but since it's coming so close, shouldn't we try to mine it?"

            Daddy went to the spectrometer to have a look. "It's a stony-type asteroid, Honey," he said. "No nickel-iron deposits, not much in the way of the volatiles we need. I'm afraid it wouldn't be worth the effort. It's mostly just a big lump of silicon and oxygen, and we've already got more of that than we need."

            I thought a moment. "If you don't want it, can I have it?" I asked.

            Daddy looked up from the spectrometer. "What do you mean? Oh, do you mean you want to be credited as the discover? I think we can handle that."

            He moved over to the nearest PC, and began typing. "You are now listed as the sole discover of asteroid 2099MMA. Do you want to give it a name as well as a designator?"

            "Yeah. Call it 'Miranda'."

            Daddy grinned. "Ummm... that might create confusion. There's a moon of Uranus which is already named Miranda."

            "Worse still," said Mr. Tanaka from across the room, "I think there's an asteroid named Miranda as well. But then you could always name it 'Miranda's World'."

            Daddy looked at me, and I nodded happily. He punched the name into the form, and then pressed the button to send it off to the Inner System.

            Daddy seemed to be getting a kick out of my show of enthusiasm. I suppose because it was the first enthusiasm I had shown over anything in a little while. While he was still in a good mood, I decided to press my luck.

            "Daddy?..."

            "What-y?..."

            "Miranda's World will be passing us at it's closest on the 13th. Can I take one of the Star Darters over to it just to explore for a bit? I promise not to stay there for more than a few hours, and you're always saying how important it is for us kids to get experience with the equipment. I'm fully qual'ed on the sims. How are we going to get to be seasoned rock-hoppers if we're cooped up in this dinky little habitat all the time?"

            Daddy looked back at me with a knowing smile. He seemed to admire my skill at presenting a persuasive argument, but was unaffected.

            "There's no denying all that, but I'd still like to see you get a bit more experience under your belt, and a bit more maturity on you too, before we go handing the keys to the Darters over."

            I sulked for a while, but not long.

            It eventually occurred to me that just because Daddy says I can't doesn't mean I won't get to.

    September 13th, 2099: Wait 'til I tell you about the adventure I had today!

            I woke up early, before anyone else, and then took the chair-lift to the axis. Then I pushed my way along to the space dock, slipped into my space suit, and climbed into one of the Star Darters we had berthed there. I've run through the simulators dozens of times, and had no difficulty sealing the hatch, pumping down the garage, opening the outer door, and jetting away from Haven Rock. If anything, I felt even more in control, as I could actually feel the Darter turn, and feel the acceleration from the short thruster firings.

            The orbital plotter made it easy to set an intercept course with Miranda's World. In a bit over a half an hour, I was there. I aimed the Darter for the daylit side.

            Gravity from the average asteroid is so small that you don't exactly "land" on one. It's more like docking with a habitat. If anything, the descent to the dark, crater-pocked surface was a bit dull because everything happened so slowly. But I didn't want to screw up the landing by jetting down too fast.

            I finally touched down (or perhaps "grounded" is a better word). The Star Darter settled on its belly. You don't bother with landing gear when a craft only weighs around a hundred kilograms on a surface.

            I sealed my helmet, pumped down the Darter, and then opened the hatch to survey my domain.

            I wish I could say my world was pretty, but it wasn't. Just rolling grey hills studded with rocks of all sizes. I stepped out onto the surface.

            I quickly realized there was no point in trying to "walk" around. The gravity wasn't enough to hold me against the surface sufficient for any traction. I used my suit jets to move around from place to place. When I wanted to stay somewhere a while, I would just allow the feeble gravity to settle me down to the surface after a couple of minutes.

            Almost feeling a bit silly now that I was actually doing it, I set up the flag of Miranda's World. It was just something I had made out of construction paper. But it had the Anderson family crest, along with a few new touches of my own. Now any visitor would know who this tiny little worldlet belonged to.

            I began to move further from the Darter, exploring my realm. I set off in the direction of one of the higher hills. It was there where a sudden motion near the horizon caught my attention.

            I was glimpsing just the edges of some rounded objects, passing back and forth along the horizon. They seemed to be artificial, and moving in a regular pattern.

            Right now, there were less than a thousand human beings out in the Belt. The odds that I had just randomly stumbled across someone were literally astronomical. Could it be that I was the one to make the most-awaited discovery of the 21st Century?

            Extraterrestrials?

            The Belt might be the best place for Them to live, where They would have all the resources They needed, and could observe humankind stealthily.

            But as I headed closer, and rounded more of the asteroid's curving surface, I could see I was looking at a ship's habitation modules swinging around on the ends of their spokes. The modules were very similar in design to the very ones we had ridden out to the Belt. What I was looking at was a ship resting on the surface of Miranda's World, pointing upward at the black sky.

            That was a bit disappointing. So they were humans after all. But still, the thought of having neighbors nearby was exciting. Odd that they hadn't signaled us, though...

            The ship was considerably shorter than the William Penn. Rather than being based on a lengthy mass-driver, this ship looked to be propelled by an ion-drive. There were large, rectangular heat radiator-wings jutting out in four directions, which suggested a nuclear reactor. Nuclear electric drive, then. While looking on the side of the hull for a name, I saw an insignia, and suddenly shivered as though I could feel the cold of the rock I stood upon.

            It was the Jolly Roger.

            Space pirates...

            I knew my immediate priority had to be getting back to Star Darter Three. Even if they could catch me before I could make it back to Haven Rock, I had to sound the alarm, to let Momma and Daddy know that pirates were riding the backside of a rock heading straight toward them.

            I was jetting my way back around the curving, rubble-laden landscape of Miranda's World, when the pirates suddenly dropped out of the sky in front of me. There were about half a dozen of them. Their space suits were grimy, and of a more-primitive design than the ones we used. Their bulkiness made the figures look like enormous, faceless apes.

            I flew between two of them, yanking my limbs back from grasping arms. I continued onward toward the Darter. But they were gaining on me rapidly. I knew they would be on me before I could get back to the relative safety of my little ship.

            But I had to let Momma and Daddy know! If I couldn't use the radio of the Darter to sound a warning, then I just had to hope my suit radio had the strength to get through at this distance. But first I had to get within line-of-sight of the habitat...

            Nudging my suit jets, I subtly altered my direction toward an outcropping of rock. The pirate in the lead almost had me when I hit the outcropping feet-first, folded my legs, and then sprang straight upwards.

            The maneuver took my pursuers by surprise. It took them a while to kill their forward velocity with their suit jets, and then begin ascending after me. Meanwhile I continued to soar upward at a pretty good clip. I could only hope I had come sufficiently far around the curve of Miranda's World for this to work.

            Soon I was delighted to see the edge of Haven Rock peeping up over the dark horizon. I immediately began screaming "Momma!! Daddy!! Space pirates!!!" over and over, at the top of my lungs, until I began to think the sound of my own voice bouncing around inside my space helmet would deafen me.

            Then I was covered in thrashing, grabbing arms.

    * * *

            The pirates took me back to their ship. Once the airlock was finished cycling, they shed their space suits, and shook me out of mine. If anything, the overalls they wore underneath were even grimier than their outer shells.

            These space pirates weren't like the ones you see in movies. There were no grotesque electronic lenses replacing a long-lost human eye. No bulky, clawed, mechanical arms or legs in place of irreparably-damaged flesh-and-blood ones. And not a parrot in sight.

            Not to say these pirates weren't ugly. One of them, hairy and beetle-browed, looked like an illustration out of a book on human origins. Another had a ragged scar running down one cheek all the way down to his collar. There only seemed to be one female among them, and she was just plain ugly enough to hurt your eyes.

            A big, barrel-chested one seemed to be the Captain. He grabbed me by the hair, and pulled me through the air toward him.

            "You little brat-bitch," he hissed. "We're going to make you pay for that."

            He pushed off, dragging me along behind, and the rest of the crew flew after us to the elevators. An elevator took us down to one of the habitation spheres, and back to gravity. As we were walking down a corridor, I could feel the pirate ship lift off from the asteroid on its chemical rockets, and pitch about to a heading.

            The Captain pushed me ahead of him onto the Bridge. There, a tall skinny man looked up from a console.

            "Captain, come over here and take a look at this!"

            The Captain shoved me over to the ugly lady, who immediately began to protest.

            "Dammit, why are you pushing her off onto me? Think just because I'm a woman that I'm here to take care of little brats?"

            "God's God, woman, can't you just shut up and be useful for once?" he snarled at her.

            The Captain then walked over to the skinny guy. "What's up, Doc?" he grimly asked.

            "I'll just put it up on the big monitor," said Doc.

            A brilliant glare suddenly erupted from the big screen.

            "Dammit, Doc, turn that down, will'ya?" the Captain growled.

            The image dimmed somewhat, and now we could make out what we were looking at.

            Haven Rock's main mirror is tens of kilometers across, and shaped something like a shortened bell. The mirror was normally joined to one end of the habitat sphere on a short neck, but now it was detached from the habitat, and floating free.

            There was a mirror at a forty-five degree angle in the neck of the structure which slowly slid into place to make night fall in Haven Rock. The mirror diverts the highly-concentrated sunlight away from the habitat window, and towards an ore-refinery jutting out from the neck. But the refinery was also detached, and floating around nearby. The dazzling shaft of solar power was shining out the neck, and straight at us.

            "What the heck are they trying to accomplish?" the pirate Captain wondered out loud. "It's not like that's a laser or anything. What do they think some focused sunlight is going to do to us?"

            "It's already doing it," reported the skinny guy. "Look at the temp indicators. The ship's warming up faster than the heat radiators can keep up. Even the nuke's running hotter than normal. We're in no big danger right now, but we'll be in trouble if this goes on for long."

            "Put me through to them!"

            "You're on."

            "Put out that damn light... now!" the Captain demanded.

            Daddy's voice came over the speakers. "You just back off, and you won't have to worry about the heat."

            "Oh, I don't think you want us to back off. Not just yet. Punch up your video."

            Now Daddy's face appeared on the screen. He and Momma were in the Control Shack. When they looked up at their screen and saw me, they tried to keep up a brave front. But I could tell it tore at their guts to see their daughter in the hands of pirates.

            "Just what do you want?" Daddy asked.

            "That big tank of hydrogen you got there will do nicely," the Captain replied.

            I knew if we didn't get that hydrogen tank sold to our customers in the Inner System, all our families were going to remain very poor for a very long time. Daddy's dream of us founding a new, thriving society here in the Belt would be brought down into ruins. I hoped there was some way I could get back to Haven Rock without sacrificing our future here.

            It bothered me to realize there were no police out here in the Belt, no Space Guard. Not even so much as a friendly neighbor to back us up in a fight. We were left entirely to our own devices. But I guess that's one of the things being a pioneer is all about.

            The Captain turned to the man he called Doc, and asked him, "What happens if we resume our approach?"

            "The closer we get, the more of that beam we intercept, for as long as they keep it trained on us."

            The Captain walked over, and grabbed me again. I could see Daddy tense up on the screen.

            "Put out that light, our I'll slit your little girl's throat, right here close to the camera, where you can watch."

            "Aww, Captain, don't do that," called out the Neanderthal. "If the pioneering frontiersman won't do as we ask, I say we just take his little girl away with us. This ship is distinctly lacking in high-quality pussy." This won him roars of laughter and approval from most of the crew, although the ugly woman shot him a look calculated to kill.

            Daddy did a pretty good job of keeping a cool demeanor, even though I knew he was scared as I was. I tried to look brave too, because I wanted to make this as easy on Daddy as I could.

            "No, I don't really think you're going to do any of that," Daddy responded levely. "You're only interested in the hydrogen. And you know if you kill your only hostage, there's nothing to prevent me from blowing that storage tank to kingdom come."

            "You're bluffing," the Captain said. "Not only won't you do that, you can't. What would you use? We know you don't have any weapons."

            "Do you see that NERVA docked to the tank?" Daddy asked him. "I have my finger on a button which will yank out the control rods, and shut off the coolant flow. The core will melt down, and the tank will go up in the biggest explosion you ever saw. Now let that girl go, and then we'll start to negotiate."

            The Captain crossed over to Doc, and engaged him in a hissing conference, which, as the Captain was still holding me, I could hear every word of.

            "Is he bluffing, or could he really detonate that nuke?"

            Doc considered. "I doubt he could make it explode, but he could certainly make it melt down. If the core went into meltdown, it would burn a hole in the side of the tank. And there goes our booty."

            "Could we use one of our lasers to cut the NERVA away from the tank?"

            "Sure, we could laser it away, but it would still be floating around right next to the tank. All it would take is one floating glob of molten goo heading in the direction of the storage tank, and you still got a hole burned into the shell. Then all that hydrogen would immediately begin venting away. And if we use a missile, I think we're going to get lots of holes."

            The Captain stormed about for a bit. It was obvious he was frustrated. Then he glared back down at me.

            "Let's get you back in your suit, runt. You're going for a little walk."

    * * *

            Someone came down the elevator with our suits. The Captain, Ugly Woman, Scarface, and Neanderthal suited up, and made me climb inside my own space suit. Then we went into an airlock. Scarface was holding a portable camera, and beaming the images back to Haven Rock.

            The outer door opened, and the most intense light I've ever seen poured through. The pirates pushed me through the door directly into the light. I couldn't keep myself from squealing.

            Then the light began to fade. The Captain made a self-satisfied grunt, and then I was being pushed along.

            As my eyes slowly stopped throbbing with that searing light, I could gradually begin to make out my surroundings. We were walking along a catwalk which ran all around the outside of this particular habitation sphere. It was the kind of scaffolding built onto the exterior hull so that maintenance crews could periodically replace the outer panes of the portholes as they grew sandblasted over the years. Overhead, the rest of the pirate ship seemed to be turning, as the entire universe wheeled about us in a complete circle once a minute. Shadows continuously swung around as this section of the ship rotated for gravity, making the distant sun rise and set with dizzying speed.

            I could see Haven Rock in the spinning heavens. Evidently Daddy had adjusted the mirror, turning off that light when he saw I was outside.

            Now I found myself standing before an opening in the railing leading to a rectangular plank which jutted out over starry blackness.

            No. They had to be kidding. They couldn't be serious.

            "I'm pleased to see you're becoming steadily more cooperative," the Captain called out. "Now I trust you will cooperate on this next request: You will immediately undock that NERVA, and then leave it parked no closer than five kilometers off. If you refuse, your daughter will take a short walk over the deepest abyss."

            Daddy's voice came to us over the suit radios. "No, I still don't think you're going to hurt that little girl. Now quit playing childish games, and send her back over to us. Now."

            Even through his space helmet, I could still see the Captain's eyes were bugging with rage. "I'm not just fucking around here!! I mean it!! I'll dump her over, right here and now!!! You know she'll go spinning away too fast for you or anyone else to retrieve her! She'll die all alone in space when her oxygen runs out. In the meanwhile, we'll have chopped you to pieces with our lasers, and taken your hydrogen anyway! Give it up, and at least you all live!!"

            There was silence.

            "Well??!!" the Captain shrieked at the starry heavens.

            Daddy's voice came back from the void, strong and even.

            "No. We're not cooperating with you in any way. You don't have the guts to do anything like that. That's my final word on the matter."

            Now the Captain was nearly dancing with frustration. "Shove her over!!" he screamed at his loudest.

            Up until now, I was sure Daddy had a plan. Now it seemed that the plan was to sacrifice his daughter for several million tons of liquefied hydrogen. The pirates were pushing me down the plank. Stars spun by beneath my feet with sickening velocity. Then my right foot was contacting nothingness, and I was pitching over...

            I was falling. It was zero G, but it was definitely falling. I slowly tumbled, and as I came back around to face the ship I had been tossed from, I was astonished to see how tiny it had already become. But the hoots and cat-calls from the pirates sounded clearly through my suit speakers, as though the rapidly-growing distance which separated us didn't exist.

            I couldn't believe this had happened, that this was how it ended for me. We'd narrowly averted my little brother's death by suffocation. Was this fate reserved for me instead?

            Something caught my eye as it drifted into my constantly-turning field of view. A nearby asteroid had come close enough to show an actual disk. I immediately recognized it from Daddy's telescopic examinations. It was 2081GKO. The fact it was passing so close by meant Uncle Wes must've successfully changed its course. But where was he?

            Then, on the small asteroid's second pass before my eyes, I saw. It was the William Penn, parked behind the asteroid, pointing directly away from the pirate ship. As I spun my arms to watch a bit longer, I saw the attitude jets light up, as Wes started a lateral maneuver.

            I knew exactly what the pirates were seeing right now: The William Penn unexpectedly rising up from the edge of 2081GKO. With its tail pointed directly at them...

            Uncle Wes started up the drive. A rapid series of fast-moving blurs began emitting from the tail-end of the mass-driver engine. But this wasn't the soon-gone white puff of evaporating oxygen. These puffs were dark brown: Stones and soil scooped up from the surface of 2081GKO. Debris accelerated at over two thousand G's over a distance of more than three kilometers. Heading straight for the pirates.

            Odd sounds came over my helmet receiver: Four cut-off screams, none of which lasted as much as half a second.

            Now the pirate ship had returned to my field of view. I couldn't see the debris impacting the hull, but I could see the effects. Sparks were erupting in a wide swath as rock collided with metal at kilometers-per-second speeds. A dish antenna tore off and began to tumble away, riddled with holes. Before Wes shut down the drive, the pirate ship was an uninhabitable and unsalvageable wreck peppered with a million tiny openings, and surrounded by a rapidly-dissipating fog of spewed air.

            Uncle Wes had proved you didn't have to be a pirate to sneak up on your enemy by hiding behind a rock. It couldn't have been an easy maneuver. Wes had to yaw the ponderous three-and-a-half kilometer length of the William Penn around, pivoting on its tail. And not a steady yaw either; he would've had to slowly increase the swing as 2081GKO grew closer, in order to keep the entire length of the ship hidden by the modestly-sized asteroid.

            "Miranda, come in." It was my mother's voice.

            "Momma, where are you?"

            "I'm a little less than a kilometer behind you, and closing. I'm in Star Darter Two."

            I suddenly realized that maybe I wasn't going to die after all. But I wasn't going to feel safe until I was back inside the cozy, warm confines of Haven Rock.

            A bit later, I could see Star Darter Two getting bigger. Suddenly it was within arm's reach. I grabbed onto some equipment on the roof of the little craft, and clung on for dear life.

            "Sweety, I'd love to get you inside just as quickly as possible, but there's no time for that right now," Momma said. "I want you to hang on just as tightly as you can for a little while, OK?"

            Puzzled, I responded, "OK".

            The maneuvering jets fired, and our course deflected only the tiniest bit.

            "Momma, what's your fuel looking like?"

            I asked because I was concerned. Momma must've burned up an awful lot of propellant to be here with me now. She not only had to exceed my speed away from everyone, she had to have exceeded it by a great deal in order to catch up with me before my oxygen was used up. Then there was the deceleration burn; that would use up almost as much fuel just to bring us to a stop. Then we had to accelerate back, and still hold back enough fuel in reserve for braking once we'd reached the habitat.

            "Don't you worry about my fuel, little girl," Momma responded. "Momma's got the situation under control."

            Our new course seemed to be sending us in the direction of a tiny asteroid. It was only about the size of a house; one of those dinky little rocks which will probably never get touched by humanity anytime between now and Judgment Day simply because it's just too small to be worth bothering with. Momma was turning the nose of the darter toward the craggy little asteroid as it passed us to one side.

            Then there was a flash, and the harpoon was rocketing away toward the tiny rock with its line following in a shimmering blur. The harpoon was standard rock-hopper equipment; it was used to string up lines from one asteroid to another so that equipment or personnel could be transferred without using up propellant.

            The harpoon was into the surface. How well, we would soon find out, as the Darter started swinging around on the cable. The line started wrapping itself around the little rock, and centrifugal force tried to drag me off the roof of the Star Darter. Now the asteroid was up, and down was that spinning sea of stars which I thought I'd already cheated once today. Then I started to see what Momma was trying to do.

            As we slowly spun on the end of the rapidly-swinging cable, Momma sent one of the mechanical arms up to rest against it. This arm was the one with the cutting laser. I hoped she could time this right. One second off either way, and we would wind up heading in the wrong direction, and the steel cable was built to resist tearing...

            Now we had done a complete 180. The laser flashed, and the cable whipped away. We were once again in free-fall.

            Without burning another drop of propellant, we were now heading back the way we came, and just as fast as we'd left. Now we were heading home, and had the fuel to make it there. Momma then smartly killed the slow tumble we had picked up from the unorthodox maneuver.

            "OK, Hon, the cabin's pumping down, and I'll have that hatch open real soon."

            "Great," I replied. "I still can't believe you caught up with me."

            "Well, as soon as we saw that plank on the video, Daddy had me high-tail it up to one of the Darters. I was floating around outside the space dock, just waiting and watching to see what direction you were going to go off in. I was never really all that far behind you."

            "Hey, Momma, that 180-degree swing we did? I'll have to admit, that was a pretty slick maneuver."

            "Oh, that was nothing," she said. "You get to be a proper rock-hopper, and you'll be doing stuff like that before breakfast!"

    * * *

            When we finally got back to Haven Rock, it seemed like each member of all four families was floating around in the space dock, waiting to greet us. Daddy soared over, and grabbed us both in a tumbling embrace.

            "Oh, Daddy, I'm so sorry I went out without permission!"

            "Well, I must confess that you did give us a heads-up on those pirates," Daddy admitted. "They would've gotten the drop on us for sure if you hadn't been out there to spot them."

            "I was so scared. But I had to believe that you had a plan, and that I really wasn't going to die in space."

            "You bet we had a plan," he told me. "I'll have to admit, as early as when we were shopping around for our transport, it'd occurred to me a mass-driver engine could be used as a weapon.

            "We were talking to your Uncle Wes via laser the whole time," Daddy informed me. "But we had to have some way of getting you off that pirate ship. So I was just goading them into doing exactly what we wanted them to do."

            "Pretty clever bluff," I said. "And it was also pretty clever rigging that NERVA for a bomb."

            "Oh, Honey, there are at least half a dozen independent safeguards on that design," Daddy said. "I couldn't have made that core go into meltdown even if I'd wanted to."

            I pulled back, and looked at him in astonishment. "What? Another bluff?!"

            "Miranda, I wouldn't attach a bomb to the bank that all our money's in!"

    December 31st, 2100: Sorry that I haven't been writing in my journal all year long. I just haven't had the time!

            We've been so busy putting the finishing touches on our second habitat, New Pennsylvania. The agriculture and livestock are going into external rings (yippee!), with the main habitats entirely given over to villages, parks, lakes, and lots of green, rolling hills. Our new home is a linked pair of cylinders, so we'll have a Hawaiian climate in one, and a New England climate in the other. Each cylinder is fifteen kilometers long and six kilometers in diameter. Six kilometers of air overhead means blue skies, cloud formations, and natural rain. So far it's just been gentle showers, though; I can't wait for our first really good, flashing, booming thunderstorm.

            The best news is that more families are on their way out. Now that there's a much bigger, nicer habitat coming on-line, we're selling off property lots about as fast as we can manufacture them. We'll probably be starting on the third habitat just as soon as our work-force goes up.

            But in addition to all the new workers, there's all their children on the way too! At least three hundred over the next two years alone. It'll be so nice to have other kids my own age to hang out with.

            Momma's cooking the traditional New Year's dinner of black-eyed peas and cornbread, for tomorrow's the first day of the 22nd Century. In more ways than one, it seems the dawn of a new era. The Age of the Belt.

            As Wilbur and I lay in a grassy field and look for objects of imagination in the cloud formations overhead, I also look about at our new home, and see what a truly beautiful thing it is we've all built here together. There's only one thing missing: big forests. There are plenty of trees, alright, but they're all saplings. None are even as tall as I am.

            That's OK. By the time I'm having kids of my own in this place, there'll be trees just tall enough for them to climb in.



    The End


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