Maneo Jung-Espinoza—Neo 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 las 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 Neo 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, Neo, 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. Neo 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 Mao-Kwik 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 said, I’m being friendly but shut the f**k 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’ve 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.