“Locus of Control” by Zack Be

“What do you mean when you say that you ‘belong’ on the lunar frontier?” Captain Braxton asks, free floating in her therapy office in the Sky Pharm’s clinical bay. “You’ve proven yourself time and again. How many more tours do you need, Master Sergeant?”

“The frontier is always going to need people who know what they’re doing,” I reply, picking at the patches on my flight suit. “And frankly, I have nowhere else to go. The front needs someone dedicated who isn’t going to make mistakes.”

“And that’s you?”

“It has to be.”

Braxton nods, keeping her arms held open in a well-practiced zero-G version of a “non-threatening posture.” She may be a therapist now, but we went through the same basic training. If it came to zero-gravity blows, I’m sure we’d have a good spar before I took her out. Of course, if I did that, I would never get put back on active duty. I could even end up Earthbound on a desk.

“You make it sound like you’re the only person with any agency in the whole sector,” she says. “I don’t believe that.”

“I’m sure you don’t believe a lot of what your patients say. But I’m telling you: If I’m not out there and people die, and I could have saved them . . . ”

A chill goes up my spine as I trail off. Every moment I sit here is a waste of my time.

“Orbital life is dangerous, Zeb, and the lunar front? Tenfold. Drone strikes, territorial disputes, piracy, supply shortages, to say nothing of the usual acts of God. It doesn’t have to be your responsibility, especially when you’ve already done your time and command wants you elsewhere. So, who do you owe here?”

“Who do I owe? Do you think I’m just on a guilt trip?” I ask, laughing.

“Are you?” she asks.

I cross my arms.

“What’s coming up for me is a feeling that you might be punishing yourself,” she continues. “And that type of mindset is not conducive to being stationed anywhere, much less a hot zone with the duties of a master sergeant. You may think you’re helping but you’re just as likely to get everyone killed thinking all this chaos is solely your responsibility. So, let’s talk about what debt you think you owe.”

“It sounds like you want to talk about the taikonauts again, is that right?” I ask. I can still see them floating away when I close my eyes, but that’s not the type of detail you would ever tell a therapist in the military.

“That would be a good place to start,” she says.

“Let’s not go around again. What do I have to say to get you to let me go?”

“You know that’s not how this works,” she says. “Just answer the questions. There won’t be another transport for a few days. You’ll get back to the GWOP eventually.”

“I don’t want to go back to the GWOP,” I say. “What I want is for you to approve me to go to lunar orbit.”

Braxton just nods again, a callous gatekeeper. Someone in command aboard the GWOP—Geosynchronous Warfighting Orbital Platform, the largest post-war orbital operating base—decided to deny my transfer request to lunar orbit until after a psych eval. GWOP is the center of U.S. operations, in a critical defensive position observing both Earth and lunar orbital maneuvers from GEO, and most would call it some kind of demotion to be moved out to a frontier Moon orbiter. My punishment for taking initiative was to be ordered down to the Sky Pharm in low Earth orbit for a few rounds of this mandatory therapy. “Standard procedure,” they claimed. So what if they decided I have a little bit of death wish? Don’t we all? Isn’t everyone who survived the war a little messed up?

“If you’re so determined to get off the GWOP, why not take a desk job on Earth instead?” Braxton asks, predictably.

“I don’t belong down there,” I say. “Every time I go back, I get sick. I’m a career man, Braxton, there’s nothing for me there—no friends, no family. I had a dog once, but I gave her up because I had to be up here. I can’t sit around on the GWOP anymore, and I certainly won’t survive sitting behind a desk Earthside.”

“Hold on, Zeb,” she says to me, holding up her watch as it starts beeping, “Braxton here.”

“Captain Braxton, we need you to come down to comms,” a voice says through the watch. Braxton is the ranking officer onboard Space Pharm, and the voice is the only other officer, a young lieutenant named Niko Lima. Space Pharm—which has some obnoxiously long official name I’ve officially forgotten—is mostly a commercial space station for Pacer Bio Tech’s pharmacological research using microgravity to grow near-perfect crystalline protein structures. The clinical wing is operated by Space Force as part of some hush-hush deal that resulted in Pacer getting federal funding to build the lab and Space Force to defend it.

“I’m in session here,” Braxton says. “This line is for emergencies only, Lima.”

“Yes, ma’am, it is,” Lima says. “We have a priority distress signal coming through from a spaceplane that entered low Earth orbit from the surface about an hour ago.”


“Looks like Bulgaria,” the lieutenant says. I look at Braxton and raise an eyebrow. The post-war space gold rush is on, and the launches never seem to stop from every last country trying to get in. Oftentimes their ships crap out somewhere and we—or the Chinese, or what’s left of the Russians—end up having to save them. I didn’t even know Bulgaria had a program.

“What’s their issue?” Braxton asks.

“Life support failure,” Lima replies. “That’s all we know. They are asking permission for an emergency dock.”

“We can’t help them problem solve this remotely?”

“Apparently not.”

“Bulgaria,” I mouth, and Braxton waves me off.

“Why us?” she asks. “There are other stations in LEO better equipped to manage this type of issue.”

“They said we are the closest station with a UAGS 34/44 androgynous docking port.”

“Of course,” Braxton says, rubbing her temples. “Tell them they can dock. We will have to rush to set up an arrival team. I’m coming now.”

Braxton turns off her watch with a heavy tap.

“A Bulgarian spaceplane?” I ask.

“This is the routine these days,” she says. “This happens almost once a week.”

“They don’t let just anyone land on the GWOP.”

“Well, we aren’t the GWOP. I need to go check this out.”

“I can come with . . . ” I start.

“No, no,” Braxton says. “This one’s not your responsibility. You’re off-duty while you’re on my station.”

“Tomorrow then,” I say, and start to turn to leave. She holds up her hand to stop me.

“Listen Zeb,” she says. “Logging more hours on the frontier is not going to relieve whatever this burden is you are carrying. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re not going to find it out there.”

I open my mouth to respond, but nothing comes out. Instead I offer a stone-faced nod to Braxton and then I use the hand holds above to spin around and exit her office. She may be the only officer I’ve encountered in my entire life who has told me to do less.

Outside her office are a few other unused office portals, including the psych chamber, where they do research on clinical MDMA and ketamine applications in zero-G. This is also where they house the station’s ARCHI, or Autonomous Robot for Combat and Hazard Intervention, in a charging port on the wall. The clinic is an odd place to keep an emotionless brick of a murder machine with six arms and multiple tactical defense measures, but it is the only spot where military tech can be housed.

Beyond the clinical wing is the Pharm’s main concourse, with seven additional wings built along the tube, some with their own smaller additions. Farther out, maintenance modules and vast solar arrays jut out into infinity. The massive installation is one of the biggest in orbit, although it doesn’t hold a candle to the menacing GWOP, which is visible at night from the Earth’s surface.

I push myself down the 40-feet-wide, 160-foot-long concourse corridor, waving at one of the Pacer employees who is eating a meal, and another who is using the bicycle to exercise above me, upside down. To his right is the main viewing port of the central corridor, currently pointed down towards Earth. At this point, I’ve lived in orbit almost as long as I’ve lived on Earth, and it still never gets old seeing big blue. I once logged something like two consecutive years in orbit during the war, back when I was maintaining the AI-targeted slag guns on the lunar orbiter Vesper. In my dreams, I can still smell the iron ore waste heating up in her firing tubes. You don’t need bullets in space, just projectiles mostly trash from our lunar industries.

I lost count of how many satellites and ships I helped tag in those years. In fact, the only one I can’t forget is the one Braxton keeps wanting to talk about. We fired on an enemy spaceplane, and two Chinese taikonauts managed to escape and find their way to a tether attached to Vesper. They were signaling for help as they climbed hand-over-hand toward the orbiter. I had no way of hearing their voices, but in my mind, I always imagine them screaming in Mandarin, begging for their lives. But what was I supposed to do? There were two of them and one of me, and it was the middle of the war. Was I supposed to let them onto the ship and roll the dice on them agreeing to be POWs versus taking me instead? No I ejected their line, and challenge anyone to claim they would’ve done something different.

No big bang, no triumphant action I just had to watch them float away, for hours and hours. Two men, two humans, spiraling helplessly into the black ocean. Watching that is an altogether different experience than watching slag from your ship’s cannon blow up a dot on your view screen. It wasn’t war, it was torture.

I try again to shake the memory off as I grab the handhold tethers that crisscross the concourse tube like an abstract jungle gym. I pull myself down to the far end of the station to peek in on the animal laboratory to check out the rats again. There aren’t a lot of animals on the GWOP.

I get a stern look from a Pacer tech as I cross the portal.

“As long as you don’t touch anything,” she says, before I even ask my question.

“Okay, okay.”

I push toward the rat cages, a floor-to-ceiling wall of individual glass rectangles, each one housing some number of lab rats. It would be all too cliché to tell Braxton she makes me feel like one of the rats. She wants to poke and prod and experiment with getting me to talk about how I let those Chinese taikonauts die.

I tap lightly on the glass.

I need to ground myself here.

“Attention all personnel,” I hear Braxton’s voice say over the Sky Pharm intercom. “We will be receiving a spaceplane in distress in the next three hours. I am requesting a security and engineering detail join us at docking at 1905 hours. Please contact Captain Braxton with any questions or concerns.”

I feel the wave of anxiety flow through me, Braxton’s words, not mine pushing me to go join the two enlisted men Braxton is calling a security team, but I stop myself. I am trying to say “woosah” more.

“Master Sergeant?” the Pacer tech calls.

“Yes?” I turn around, prepared to set her mind at ease about the imminent boarding party, as if it’s my job.

“Please don’t tap on the glass.”

“Sorry,” I say aloud, and then just to myself, Woosah.


I wake up to the distant, muffled sound of shouting echoing down the main concourse and through the closed hatch of the crew quarters. Sleepily, I rub my eyes forcing myself to take a nap in here after seeing the rats had felt like the only way to keep hovering over the spaceplane docking, against Braxton’s orders.

“What’s that?” I ask, but there is no one else in the crew quarters wing. Wondering if I’ve already missed the arrival of the Bulgarians, I look down at my watch and find it flashing red with an emergency alert, but not giving any details. Suddenly feeling a shot of adrenaline in my chest, I untether myself from the sleep wall and push toward the far door of the cabin.

As I’m moving, I hear more loud voices echoing in from the concourse. Where the first shout could’ve been from rowdy poker gamesmanship, this was undoubtedly a scream from someone in distress. I sidle up against the far wall and take a look out of the small porthole. The portion of the concourse I can see looks empty except for a lone man floating in the middle of the tube, gripping a handhold tether. He is masked and holding an air-pump rifle; not the modern kind, but an old one like the Chinese used to issue during the war. They were never quite as powerful as the U.S. rifles, but power isn’t really what you need in orbit SAPs, spaceborne air-pump rifles, are designed to create enough projectile force from compressed air to damage/incapacitate a human with blunt force trauma, but not enough to blow a hole in the side of a ship. You also can only fire them when planted on a wall or other object to transfer the force, otherwise you’ll end up in a spin.         

Silently, I tap through the emergency screens on the watch and try to access the Sky Pharm on-board AI system and get more information, but as a guest I’m limited to base functionality. I request a status report from the AI, but it tells me I do not have clearance and that I should seek shelter until help arrives. Fat chance of that.

Carefully, I look out the porthole again and see the lone gunman still floating there. He doesn’t have a military uniform, or any specific identifying marks, but he’s armed and doesn’t look friendly. The pieces are starting to come together armed gunman with no identifying marks, mysterious “Bulgarian” spaceplane, missing crew, silent station alarm . . .  it can only mean so many things.


“Damn,” I mutter to no one at all. I fall asleep for a few hours and the station gets hijacked? Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself; maybe there is a better explanation.

Then I hear one of those screams again.

“Nope,” I say. “This is real.”

The screaming seems to be coming from down the concourse, on the animal lab side. They must’ve collected everyone in a smaller space to increase crowd control of the Space Pharm crew. That’s what I would do, at least. I pull back from the door and take a deep breath, something Braxton taught me, actually.

Without access to main systems there isn’t much I can do from the crew quarters. If I want to signal GWOP for help I will need to get to the comms module, which is across the concourse. But if I go out onto the concourse, the lookout will spot me. Whoever these guys are, I’d guess they came here with some record of the main Space Pharm crew, but maybe not their guests. That means I may have some element of surprise if they don’t know I’m in here, for whatever good that will do me.

The module door’s handle begins jiggling, and I instinctively scramble up the wall above it to hide. After a few moments of awkward struggle, the door pushes in and the nozzle of a SAP rifle enters, held by another intruder, different from the one floating in the middle of concourse. They may not know I’m here, but at least they were smart enough to send someone around to check. I let him come farther in, waiting to see if he is alone.

If he is, he’s mine.

My heart rate increases and my back tenses up, even though I’ve done these maneuvers a thousand times before. The trouble is, you never know what you’re getting into, or with whom. At least it’ll be one-on-one.

I press my feet into the wall to give me leverage for a dive attack. I wait as long as I can, long enough for him to get into the module and out of the sightline of his friend, but not so long that he spots me in his peripherals. Then I dive into his back.

The pirate tries to let out a shout, but it catches in his throat as my arms grip his neck. I lock in the choke and wrap my legs around his midsection. I can tell from the way he wriggles in my arms that he’s never done a day of zero-gravity jiu-jitsu in his life. Unluckily for him, I teach a class on it on the GWOP.

I shift my grip and clamp down on his jugular, cutting off blood flow to his brain for a quicker knock out. His body goes limp after ten seconds, but I keep holding on. I know I only have a few moments before his spotter gets suspicious, and the safest thing to do would be to snap his spinal cord, but I haven’t even confirmed if these guys are really enemies.

Instead, I grab the cable ties off his waist, likely what they used on the rest of the crew, and tie his hands and ankles before forcing a towel in his mouth and zip-tying that around his head. I look over his gear up-close while he is still unconscious, but he has no identifying marks either. His comms watch is a few generations old, and his flight suit is even more tattered than mine. These guys could be from anywhere, backed by anyone.

I take his SAP and check the loading mechanism, hoping it might just be a prop, but it turns out to be fully loaded with pebble-sized round projectiles. This is not a good sign.

I only have a few moments to think before someone else comes looking. My first and most bone-headed idea would be to just take the SAP rifle out into the main concourse and attack the other intruder head on before throwing myself toward comms. I’m sure I could handle him on my own, but he might not be alone, and I have no way of knowing how many pirates came on board. So, no dice, I have to find another way.

I look around the crew quarters and see a maintenance hatch that probably goes out into the extended modules. I push off the intruder toward the wall, where I find a panel with a diagram of the station’s layout. The hatch leads out to a maintenance module, which runs through some of the other maintenance modules, and might give me a way to get to comms.

The pirate below me starts to shake awake, tugging on his cable ties. I open the hatch and start to climb in, only to hear the pirate begin to shout through his towel.

“Shut up,” I say, but he won’t, and I find my arms raising the SAP as I plant my back in the wall.

“Dammit,” I say, and fire one shot, releasing a compressed air pop slightly louder than the nearly silent modern U.S. rifles. The projectile hits the man in the head, incapacitating him and sending the body twirling toward the wall. I pull the hatch closed behind me, point the SAP forward, and begin crawling along the rungs of the tube.

The clock is ticking.


I don’t have to travel too far before I find disappointment at a major junction point. Reading over another copy of the station diagram posted to the wall, I find that I am on the wrong side of the Sky Pharm. The crew quarters are opposite the comms wing, and the access tubes were never designed to circumvent the main concourse.

“‘No wasted space in space,’” I say, reciting the mantra of every station design engineer I’ve met. They don’t tend to foresee these types of situations.

Tubes on all sides lead to the other three wings on this side of the station. Above me is a hatch that goes farther out to the solar array station. Perhaps there is a suitport out there I could use to get around the station to the other side? I’m not sure how I would get back in. Maybe I could jettison the suitport on the other side—if there even is one—and use emergency protocols to get in? But the pirates would hear the commotion.

I reach up and grab the handle for the door only to have it swing open toward me, followed by a U.S. issue SAP being pressed into my face. My finger just barely scratches the trigger on my own SAP before I realize who it is.


“Zeb, Jesus,” she says, lowering the rifle. “They didn’t get you.”

“Who didn’t get me?” I ask. “What’s going on?”

“The spaceplane,” she says, “pirates.”

There is Pacer tech hiding behind her, face white as a ghost.

“Any idea what outfit?” I ask.

“Unknown,” she says. “They wanted something from Pacer’s lab. I would guess they’re a non-state proxy group trying to steal IP. This happens way too often in LEO. They bust in on a spaceplane under false call signs, rob, and then go back Earthside. Usually long gone before we know what’s hit us.”

“Has it happened here before?”

“Not on Sky Pharm. We’ve had an attempt before but never been boarded. They usually go for smaller targets.”

Braxton winces and pushes back against the wall.

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“They burst in on us after docking, started firing without any warning. Lima hit the silent alarm before they got him. I got tagged in my ribs, internal bleeding probably but I’ll live.”

“How many of them?”

“I’m not sure, nine maybe?”

“Then it’s eight, for now,” I say.

“You got one?” she asks.

“Yes, but they’re probably on my tail as we speak. I was going up this way to see if I could get into a suitport and go around to comms.”

“Don’t worry about that, Zeb, I already sent for help,” she says, tapping her watch. “Got away in the fray and squirreled up in here with one of the Pacer techs. Was able to get the message out remotely before they got to comms. They probably trashed it by now.”

“Damn,” I say.

“Besides, there’s no way get back in the ship around the other side if you took out the suitport. You’d have to go in through the main airlock, and that would just put you back on the concourse. Safest bet is to stay here with us until help arrives.”

“Help will be at least a day away, Captain, maybe two,” I say. “We can’t just sit here. They’ve probably got the rest of the crew.”

“Confirmed, they’ve got them,” Braxton says. “There’s not much we can do.”

“The hell there isn’t,” I say.

Braxton points at her broken rib.

“Between you and me we’ve got one and half soldiers and two SAPs, plus I’m only a goddamn therapist at full strength,” she says. “I’m not taking those odds. We’re staying here.”

“We can’t just let them do whatever they want, Captain,” I say. “The crew is a bunch of civilians, for god’s sake.”

“There’s nothing we can do for them until the cavalry arrives,” she says. “We stay.”

“To hell with that, Captain, give me your SAP and I’ll go myself.”

“Absolutely not, Master Sergeant. We stay; and that’s an order.”

I open my mouth to respond, ready to shout about rank versus respect, when I realize something obvious that’s been staring me in the face. I swivel back to the station diagram. Comms may not be on this side of the ship, but the Space Force clinic is, and the tubes will take me straight to it.

“Fine, Captain, stay here,” I say, pressing my finger into the clinic on the map. “There may only be one and a half of us and seven of them, but we’ve got a goddamn ARCHI, and I like those odds.”

“The ARCHI has never been turned on,” Braxton says. “And assuming it’s operational, and that the pirates haven’t trashed it, do you even have a plan to use the damn thing?”

“I’ll have to play it by ear,” I say. “We had a saying during the war ‘nothing too fancy is better than nothing at all.’”

Braxton curses as I start pushing my way back down the junction toward the access tube.

“Zeb, don’t do this. You’re going to get yourself killed.”

“You just don’t get it, Captain,” I say, looking back up at her and wiping sweat from my brow. “This right here? This is one of those moments. You’ll live with it for the rest of your life, regardless of what you do.”

“Zeb . . . ”

“I know what I’m doing,” I say. “Do you?”


The clinic is empty, my first piece of luck all week. I crack the maintenance hatch open and slip slowly into the clinic wing, SAP held high in case one of the intruders decides to pop out from around a corner. I let out a low whistle, just to test the waters, but there is no response.

I push myself through the room toward the wall besides the main entrance. As I pass, I can tell that several people left the clinic wing in a hurry, probably racing toward the alarm only to find themselves face to face with a gaggle of pirates. This Space Force skeleton crew of doctors and mechanics never stood a chance.

I work my way over to the ARCHI. It is inset in the wall, shaped like an unassuming rectangle about five feet tall. There is a dull scratch on the thick bullet-proof glass where its “face” would be, probably from one of the pirates trying to smash it with his rifle. He will be shocked when ARCHI snaps back.

I pull out the control panel for the ARCHI, which has a more significant crack, likely from the same pirate. Using the touchscreen, I begin trying to turn the ARCHI on and give it directions, but the system scans my watch and tells me I don’t have station clearance to activate the ARCHI.

“The hell I don’t,” I say.

ARCHIs often require station-specific passwords or biometric authentication, neither of which I have. But a lesser-known fact is that any Space Force guardian can operate any ARCHI in an emergency mode capacity. I tap in the requisite code and watch the OLED screen flicker to life behind the scratched glass. There is a systems check, followed by swift shift over to an emergency screen.

“How can I be of service?” the ARCHI asks.

“We have an active incursion event,” I say. “Eight or nine intruders, it’s unknown how many hostages.”

“Support?” ARCHI asks.

“Just me,” I say, looking back at the empty maintenance tube hatch.

“Master Sergeant Zebulon Reed,” ARCHI says, syncing with my watch and biometrics. “Are you armed?”

“I have a SAP,” I say, “but only five more shots.”

“I will be using biometric signatures to identify Pacer and Space Force crew and separate them from intruder targets,” ARCHI says. “Is there anyone else onboard who is not part of the crew manifest that I should know of?

“No, just the pirates.”

“Stick behind me for cover, aim for the head as needed,” ARCHI continues. “Things will move quickly.”

The rectangular form begins lifting off the wall toward me, accompanied by a low humming sound. Six steel arms unfurl like squid tentacles from behind the square body, each harboring different offensive or defensive elements. Without the limits of gravity, an ARCHI can be shaped in any number of configurations. I can only imagine how different things would have been if I had had one of these things back on the Vesper. Maybe those taikonauts would still be alive if I had had this kind of backup.

“I am detecting multiple heat signatures in the protein crystallization refinery, wing six. This is likely the site where the hostages are being held.”

“All of the hostages?” I ask.

“Unknown,” ARCHI says. “They appear to be trying to access main systems and data banks.”

“Data banks? They must be trying to steal some of Pacer’s proprietary data,” I say. “All this for protein crystals?”

“Unknown,” ARCHI says. “Shall I define and execute an attack plan?”

“Define,” I say. “Wait for confirmation of execution.”

“I am going to force a few malfunction alerts and alarms through the station’s AI to try to confuse, distract, and possibly draw them out onto the main concourse,” the ARCHI says.

“That’s gonna make it hard for me to see as well,” I say.

“Correct. You will need to be careful discharging your SAP after I turn off the main station lights.”

“‘Be careful’? That’s your plan?”

“While I make a frontal assault, you can use the secondary access via the animal laboratory to flank the intruders and begin releasing hostages.”

“I don’t know,” I say. “They probably have schematics. Don’t you think they’ll be guarding the door?”

“They will be distracted by me,” ARCHI says.

“What’s the mission success probability?” I ask.

“Unknown,” ARCHI says.

“Don’t bullshit me, just give me the real number,” I say. It might be an urban legend, but I’ve been told that ARHCIs tell white lies or omit information to manage soldier psychology.

“Sixty percent chance of success,” the ARCHI says. “Within acceptable limits.”

“Sixty percent feels low,” I say.

“It is within acceptable mission limits.”

“Can anything improve that rating?”

“Expressions of confidence,” ARCHI says. “Expressions of self-worth, and camaraderie.”

“Goddammit,” I say. “Enough with the propaganda. Let’s do this.”

“Godspeed,” the ARCHI says, turns, and opens the clinical wing’s door.


Everything happens so fast it’s hard to follow. The ARCHI uses two arms to fling itself off the lip of the clinic door and toward the pirate anchored on the tether in the middle of the concourse. There is a frightened shout, and then I hear the pop of the pirate’s SAP. The projectile bounces off the shell of the ARCHI like a cotton ball just before the robot reaches him, grabs his neck, and snaps it backwards violently. The snap is totally clean with no blood; the robot knows that free floating liquid could damage a system and is calibrated for maximum damage and minimal mess. In all my years in orbit, I’ve never actually seen an ARCHI set loose. The precision is perfect, and the little machine is ferocious.

Right on cue, the lights in the concourse chamber go out, and a blaring alarm begins to sound across the intercom. Like some six-legged nightmare monkey, the ARCHI pulls itself through the concourse handholds and crashes down on the door of refinery wing. Using one arm to push the door open, the ARCHI reaches in and pulls another pirate out, whipping him around violently before releasing his limp body, tied up in itself like a fleshy ball of yarn, out onto the concourse. I hear a small chorus of SAPs pop and clap as they fire on the ARCHI through the portal to no avail.

While they are distracted, I push myself across the concourse and through the wires until I reach the animal lab, which is next door to the refinery. Reverting to training on “how to clear a room in zero-G” is almost automatic.

I twist the handle and fling the door in, wait a beat, and then move into the lab with my SAP pointed forward. I quickly check above and then below the door so as not to let anyone get a drop on me like I did earlier in the crew quarters. This maneuver is completed most efficiently with two guardians at once, but you do what you can. Aside from the rats, the lab is empty. As I slip into lab I can hear the sound of a scream behind me. Assuming it’s another pirate being grabbed by the ARCHI, I have to guess we are down to five.

I float down to the far end of the animal testing wing. Across from the rat wall is another hatch, this time connecting directly between Pacer’s animal and refinery lab wings. This little tube will be the most dangerous part of the trip; with no room to maneuver it has the potential to basically become a shooting gallery.

Just as I pull the lever on the hatch I feel the door push outward toward me, followed closely by one of the intruders apparently trying to escape or flank the ARCHI.

“American,” he says as I fall back and flatten. I point the SAP at his head and fire before he or I can fully process what’s happening.

Immediately, the force of firing the projectile sends me into a backward spin. I fight for a second to grab hold, but there is nothing nearby to stop my spin. Blood rushing to my head, I hold out the nozzle of the gun and let it catch on the nearest handhold before pulling myself to a stop. I look over at the pirate; his body is limp.

Four shots left.

I grab the pirate’s leg and maneuver us so I can push off his body and float back toward the hatch. Entering the tube, SAP first, I crawl down the tube one rung at a time. The refinery-side door is already open at the far end, and I can hear the sounds of the pirates’ desperate battle with the ARCHI.

When I reach the opening, I peek up toward the concourse door and the ARCHI and see that the pirates have taken cover closer to the door. Two are using their bodies as leverage to try to force the door closed, trapping the ARCHI’s arms in the opening. The other two are farther back, planted on desks welded to the wall and aiming their rifles at the ARCHI, shouting in a language I don’t think I recognize. Swiveling my head around, I see the eight crewmembers are at the outer end of the wing, zip-tied to the bulkheads and other welded station parts.

I signal silence to the group as I quietly guide myself into the refinery. I grab a pair of scissors off the tool wall to the left of the hatch and then push myself straight toward the enlisted guys, who I trust slightly more to know how to fight.

Slipping the SAP over my shoulder to free both hands, I take the scissors to the specialist’s wrist restraints. While gnawing on the plastic zip-ties with the scissors edge, I hear another shout, but this time it’s from one of the crew.

“Watch out!” a Pacer tech yells. I spin around in time to see the two pirates on the desks raising their guns. I reach to pull mine off my shoulder, but I already know I’m drawing against two guys who have the drop on me. If their aim is worth half a shit, they’ve got me. I’m dead.

There are three pops.

The first pop is a projectile that hits me in the shoulder, and my body bends back under the force, forcing me into another spin before my back hits the crewman and stops me. The second two pops don’t connect, and I manage to get off my own shot, using the enlisted man’s body as leverage, before I realize they didn’t come from the pirate’s rifles. Looking up, I see two standard issue projectiles ricocheting slowly away from the heads of the two now-incapacitated pirates, spinning free from their cover behind the desks. At first I think the shots came from the ARCHI, but the angle is wrong. Then I see there is someone planted in the same transfer tube I had come through.

“Captain!” I shout.

Just then, the concourse door crashes open and ARCHI barrels through, its deadly bouquet of arms grabbing both remaining intruders by their necks and slamming their bodies together in a deadly crunch.

A sudden quiet overtakes the refinery as the ARCHI slows to a halt. I can hear myself breathing, the pain in my shoulder where I was shot immense.

“Master Sergeant?” I hear one of the enlisted men say.

“Yes,” I say. “Yes.”

I turn back to the specialist and cut him free, then the other.

“You have to get them secured,” I manage to say through the pain as I turn to cut the next crewmember free. Both push off the bulkhead and back toward the two pirates, grabbing their SAPs and the zip-ties.

“There’s another one alive in the animal lab,” I say. “And there was another in crew quarters, I’m not sure of his whereabouts now.”

“Where is Lima?” I hear Braxton shout.

“They left him in the docking port,” one of the Pacer techs says.

I reach out to cut loose her hands next, but the impact of the SAP on my shoulders is making it hard to breathe, much less cut.

Braxton comes up next to me and takes the scissors.

“I got it,” she says, taking the scissors from my hand and freeing the tech. “Can I trust you to go get him and bring him back here?” she asks him.

“Yes, sir,” the tech says.

“Where did you come from?” I ask.

“I realized a bit late that you might not have clearance to activate the ARCHI,” she says, cutting the next pair of hands. “And I didn’t want it to be my fault that you then decided to go at it completely alone. Turned out I was wrong, but once I was following you, I couldn’t stomach turning back either.”

I nod, wiping sweat from my forehead.

“Threat neutralized,” ARCHI announces.

“Let’s confine any of the living ones to wing three, ARCHI,” Braxton says. “We’ll collect the dead next.”

“Affirmative,” the ARCHI says.

I look around at the Pacer techs, several of them crying. Most have never experienced anything like this before, or seen death or violence come this close. Braxton is helping them move off the bulkhead and is directing the more stoic crewmembers toward helping the Space Force guardians to round up the bodies of the remaining pirates. I look at my hands shaking, unsteady and start to feel the impacts of the adrenaline catching up with me, almost like a hangover.

“Let me see that arm, Zeb,” Braxton says, maneuvering my shoulder. “We probably need to sling this.”

“Yeah,” I say through shallow breath. My body is starting to realize I did almost die today, not something I’ve felt since the war. Braxton puts her hand on my other shoulder and squeezes.

“I’m just going to say it, Zeb. You saved a lot of lives today.”

“Well, the ARCHI did, at least,” I reply, with a smirk.

“Joke all you want, but look around you,” Braxton says. “We weren’t prepared for this, and you were. I don’t know what would’ve happened if you weren’t here.”

“You would’ve waited for the cavalry,” I say.

“I should have listened earlier, Master Sergeant,” she says. “You had the right idea.”

“Just doing my job,” I say.

“Captain?” one of the Pacer technicians says, calling for her. Braxton gives me a knowing nod and floats off.

I slink back into the wall, holding my arm in place.

“Thank you,” I hear some of the techs say, and I smile through the pain in response. “Thank you; thank you.”

What I don’t tell Braxton, what you can never tell a military therapist, is that even now, after all this, I can still see those two Chinese taikonauts floating away from the Vesper when I close my eyes. My hands bloodied, body shaken, lives saved; none of that seems to matter. The lunar frontier came to low Earth orbit today, but no debt was paid.

What I don’t say, what I could never say, is that Braxton might have a point.


Copyright © 2024 by Zack Be

Zack Be is an award-winning author, obscure songwriter, and Couple and Family Therapist long trapped in the gravity well of the Washington, DC, area. Zack is an emerging SFF writer whose work has appeared regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction and was published in Analog Science Fiction and Fact in 2023. His story “As Able the Air” was a winning story in Writers of the Future vol. 36, the most prestigious contest for emerging SFF authors in the world. He was previously a finalist for the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award, in 2023.