Manéo Jung-Espinoza – Néo to his friends back on Ceres station – huddled in the cockpit of the little ship he'd christened the Y Que. After almost three months, there were maybe fifty hours left before he made history. The food had run out two days before. The only water that was left to drink was half a liter of recycled piss that had already gone through him more times than he could count. Everything he could turn off, he'd turned off. The reactor was shut down. He still had passive monitors, but no active sensors. The only light in the cockpit came from the backsplash of the display terminals. The blanket he'd wrapped himself in, corners tucked into his restraints so it wouldn't float away, wasn't even powered. His broadcast and tightbeam transmitters were both shut off, and he'd slagged the transponder even before he'd painted the name on her hull. He hadn't flown this far just to have some kind of accidental blip alert the flotillas that he was coming.
Fifty hours – less than that – and the only thing he had to do was not be seen. And not run into anything, but that part was in los manos de Dios.
His cousin Evita had been the one who introduced him to the underground society of slingshots. That was three years ago, just before his fifteenth birthday. He'd been hanging at his family hole, his mother gone to work at the water treatment plant, his father at a meeting with the grid maintenance group that he oversaw, and Néo had stayed home, cutting school for the fourth time in a month. When the system announced someone waiting at the door, he'd figured it was school security busting him for being truant. Instead, Evita was there.
She was two years older, and his mother's sister's kid. A real Belter. They had the same long, thin bodies, but she was from there. He'd had a thing for Evita since the first time he saw her. He'd had dreams about what she'd look like with her clothes off. What it would feel like to kiss her. Now here she was, and the place to himself. His heart was going three times standard before he opened the door.
"Esá, unokabátya," she said, smiling and shrugging with one hand.
"Hoy," he'd said, trying to act cool and calm. He'd grown up in the massive city in space that was Ceres station just the way she had, but his father had the low, squat frame that marked him as an Earther. He had as much right to the cosmopolitan slang of the belt as she had, but it sounded natural on her. When he said it, it was like he was putting on someone else's jacket.
"Some coyos meeting down portside. Silvestari Campos back," she said, her hip cocked, her mouth soft as a pillow and her lips shining. "Mit?"
"Que no?" he'd said. "Got nothing better."
He'd figured out afterward that she'd brought him because Mila Sana, a horse-faced Martian girl a little younger than him had a thing, and they all thought it was funny to watch the ugly Inner girl padding around after the half-breed, but by then he didn't care. He'd met Silvestari Campos and he'd heard of slingshotting.
Went like this: Some coyo put together a boat. Maybe it was salvage. Maybe it was fabbed. Probably at least some of it was stolen. Didn't need to be much more than a torch drive, a crash couch, and enough air and water to get the job done. Then it was all about plotting the trajectory. Without an Epstein, torch drive burned pellets too fast to get anyone anywhere. At least not without help. The trick was to plot it so that the burn – and the best only ever used one burn – would put the ship through a gravity assist, suck up the velocity of a planet or moon, and head out as deep as the push would take them. Then figure out how to get back without getting dead. Whole thing got tracked by a double-encrypted black net as hard to break as anything that the Loca Greiga or Golden Bough had on offer. Maybe they ran it. It was illegal as hell, and somebody was taking the bets. Dangerous, which was the point. And then when you got back, everyone knew who you were. You could lounge around in the warehouse party and drink whatever you wanted and talk however you wanted and drape your hand on Evita Jung's right tit and she wouldn't even move it off.
And just like that, Néo, who hadn't ever cared about anything very much, developed an ambition.
"The thing people have to remember is that the Ring isn't magical," the Martian woman said. Néo had spent a lot of time in the past months watching the newsfeeds about the Ring, and so far, he liked her the best. Pretty face. Nice accent. She wasn't as thick as an Earther, but she didn't belong to the Belt either. Like him. "We don't understand it yet, and we may not for decades. But the last two years have given us some of the most interesting and exciting breakthroughs in materials technology since the wheel. Within the next ten or fifteen years, we're going to start seeing the applications of what we've learned from watching the protomolecule, and it will—"
"Fruit. Of. A poisoned. Tree," the old, leathery looking coyo beside her said. "We cannot allow ourselves to forget that this was built from mass murder. The criminals and monsters at Protogen and MaoKwik released this weapon on a population of innocents. That slaughter began all of this, and profiting from it makes us all complicit."
The feed cut to the moderator, who smiled and shook his head at the leathery one.
"Rabbi Kimble," the moderator said, "we've had contact with an undisputed alien artifact that took over Eros station, spent a little over a year preparing itself in the vicious pressure-cooker of Venus, then launched a massive complex of structures just outside the orbit of Uranus and built a thousand-kilometer wide ring. You can't be suggesting that we are morally required to ignore those facts."
"Himmler's hypothermia experiments at Dachau—" the leathery coyo began, wagging his finger in the air, but now it was the pretty Martian's turn to interrupt.
"Can we move past the 1940s, please?" she said, smiling in a way that say I'm being friendly but shut the fuck up. "We're not talking about space Nazis here. This is the single most important event in human history. Protogen's role in it was terrible, and they're been punished for it. But now, we have to—"
"Not space Nazis!" the old coyo yelled. "The Nazis aren't from space. They are right here among us. They are the beasts of our worst nature. By profiting from these discoveries, we legitimize the path by which we came to them."
The pretty one rolled her eyes and looked at the moderator like she wanted help. The moderator shrugged at her, which only made the old one angrier.
"The Ring is a temptation to sin," the old coyo shouted. There were little flecks of white at the corners of his mouth that the video editor had chosen to leave visible.
"We don't know what it is," the pretty one said. "Given that it was intended to do its work on primordial Earth with single-celled organisms and wound up on Venus with an infinitely more complex substrate, it probably doesn't work at all, but I can say that temptation and sin have nothing to do with it."
"They are victims. Your 'complex substrate'? It is the corrupted bodies of the innocent!"
Néo turned down the feed volume and just watched them gesture at each other for a while.
It had taken him months to plan out the trajectory of the Y Que, finding the time when Jupiter, Europa, and Saturn were all in the right positions. The window was so narrow it had been like throwing a dart from a half-klick away and pinning a fruit-fly's wing with it. Europa had been the trick. A close pass on the Jovian moon, then down so close to the gas giant that there was almost drag. Then out again for the long trip past Saturn, sucking more juice out of its orbital velocity, and then farther out into the black, not accelerating again, but going faster than anyone would imagine a little converted rock-hopper could manage. Through millions of klicks of vacuum to hit a bulls-eye smaller than a mosquito's asshole.
Néo imagined the expressions of all the science and military ships parked around the Ring when a little ship, no transponder and flying ballistic, appeared out of nowhere and shot straight through the Ring at a hundred and fifty thousand kilometers per hour. After that, he'd have to move fast. He didn't have enough fuel left to kill all his velocity, but he'd slow down enough that they could get a rescue ship to him.
He'd do some time in slam, that was sure. Maybe two years, if the magistrates were being pissy. It was worth it, though. Just the messages from the black net where all his friends were tracking him with the constant and rising chorus of Holy Shit It's Going To Work made it worth it. He was going down in history. In a hundred years, people were still going to be talking about the biggest-balled slingshot ever. He'd lost months building the Y Que, more that that in transit, then jail time after. It was worth it. He was going to live forever.
The biggest danger was the flotilla surrounding the Ring. Earth and Mars had kicked each other's navies into creaky old men months ago, but what was left was mostly around the Ring. Or else down in the inner planets, but Néo didn't care about them. There were maybe twenty or thirty big military ships watching each other while every science vessel in the system peeked and listened and floated gently a couple thousand klicks from the Ring. All the navy muscle there to make sure no one touched. Scared, all of them. Even with all that metal and ceramic crammed into the same little corner of space, even with the relatively tiny thousand klicks across that was the inner face of the Ring, the chances that he'd run into anything were trivial. There was a lot more nothing than something. And if he did hit one of the flotilla ships, he wasn't going to be around to worry about it, so he just gave it up to the Virgin and started setting up the high-speed camera. When it finally happened, it would be so fast, he wouldn't even know whether he'd made the mark until he analyzed the data. And he was making sure there was going to be a record. He turned his transmitters back on.
"Hoy," he said into the camera, "Néo here. Néo solo. Captain and crew of souverän Belt-racer Y Que. Mielista me. Got six hours until biggest slipper since God made man. Esta being for me Mama, the sweet Sophia Brun, and Jesus our lord and savior. Watch close. Blink it and miss, que sa?"
He watched the file. He looked like crap. He probably had time he could shave the ratty little beard off and at least tie back his hair. He wished now he'd kept up with his daily exercises so he wouldn't look so chicken-shouldered. Too late now. Still, he could mess with the camera angle. He was ballistic. Wasn't like there was any thrust gravity to worry about.
He tried again from two other angles until his vanity was satisfied, then switched to the external cameras. His introduction was a little over ten seconds long. He'd start the broadcast twenty seconds out, then switch to the exterior cameras. More than a thousand frames per second, and it still might miss the ring between images. He had to hope for the best. Wasn't like he could get another camera now, even if a better one existed.
He drank the rest of his water and wished that he'd packed just a little more food. A tube of protein slush would have gone down really well. It'd be done soon. He'd be in some Earther or Martian brig where there would be a decent toilet and water to drink and prisoner's rations. He was almost looking forward to it.
His sleeping comm array woke up and squawked about a tightbeam. He opened the connection. The encryption meant it was from the black net, and sent long enough ago that it would reach him here. Someone besides him was showing off.
Evita was still beautiful, but more like a woman now than she'd been when he'd started getting money and salvage to build the Y Que. Another five years, she'd be plain.
He's still have a thing for her, though.
"Esá, unokabátya," she said. "Eyes of the world. Toda auge. Mine too."
She smiled, and just for a second, he thought maybe she'd lift her shirt. For good luck. The tightbeam dropped.
"I repeat, this is Martian frigate Lucien to the unidentified ship approaching the Ring. Respond immediately or we will open fire."
Three minutes. They'd seen him too soon. The Ring was still three minutes away, and they weren't supposed to see him for until he had less than one.
Néo cleared his throat.
"No need, que sa? No need. This is the Y Que, racer out sa Ceres station."
"Your transponder isn't on, Y Que."
"Busted, yeah? Need some help with that."
"Your radio's working just fine, but I'm not hearing a distress beacon."
"Not distressed," he said, pulling the syllables out for every extra second. He could keep them talking. "Ballistic is all. Can fire up the reactor, but it's going to take a
couple minutes. Maybe you can come give a hand, eh?"
"You are in restricted space, Y Que," the Martian said, and Néo felt the grin growing on his face.
"No harm," Néo said. "No harm. Surrender. Just got to get slowed down a little. Firing it up in a few seconds. Hold your piss."
"You have ten seconds to change trajectory away from the Ring or we will open fire."
The fear felt like victory. He was doing it. He was on target for the Ring and it was freaking them out. One minute. He started warming up the reactor. At this point, he wasn't even lying anymore. The full suite of sensors started their boot sequence.
"Don't fire," he said, as he made a private jacking-off motion. "Please, sir, please don't shoot me. I'm slowing down as fast as I can."
"You have five seconds, Y Que."
He had thirty seconds. The friend-or-foe screens popped up as soon as the full ship system was on. The Lucien was going to pass close by. Maybe seven hundred klicks. No wonder they'd seen him. At that distance, the Y Que would light up the threat boards like it was Christmas. Just bad luck, that.
"You can shoot if you want, but I'm stopping as fast as I can," he said.
The status alarm sounded. Two new dots appeared on the display. Hijo de puta had actually launched torpedoes.
Fifteen seconds. He was going to make it. He started broadcast and the exterior camera. The ring was out there somewhere, its thousand kilometer span still too small and dark to make out with the naked eye. There was only the vast spill of stars.
"Hold fire!" he shouted at the Martian frigate. "Hold fire!"
Three seconds. The torpedoes were gaining fast.
As one, the stars all blinked out.
Néo tapped the monitor. Nothing. Friend-or-foe didn't show anything. No frigate. No torpedoes. Nothing.
"Now that," he said to no one and nothing, "is weird."
On the monitor, something glimmered blue and he pulled himself closer, as if being a few inches closer to the screen would make it all make sense.
The sensors that triggered the high-g alert took five hundredths of a second to trip. The alert, hardwired, took another three hundredths of a second to react, pushing power to the red LED and the emergency Klaxon. The little console telltale that pegged out with a ninety nine g deceleration warning took a glacial half second to excite its light emitting diodes. But by that time Néo was already a read smear inside the cockpit. The ship's deceleration throwing him forward through the screen and into the far bulkhead in less time than it took a synapse to fire. For five, long seconds, the ship creaked and strained, not just stopping, but being stopped.
In the unbroken darkness, the exterior high-speed camera kept up its broadcast, sending out a thousand frames per second of nothing.
And then, of something else.