Broken Contract threw the switch which closed with a bang. The last of the couplings hummed to life and magnetically locked into place. “All right,” he said, shielding his eyes, “let ‘em know we’re good, Beanie.”

The mooring cable connected to the coupling extended as far as he could see and was as big around as him. Zhoq stepped just beyond the safe distance ring and turned. “Beanie? You hear me?”

“Roger, Zhoq.” The voice in his ear was amiable. “They’re advised.”

He shook his head. Beanie was likable, a character by any definition, but he damned well better be doing his job. “Good. Let me know when they’re close.”

The cable tensed and soon enough the enormous transport orbiting above would send its car down, laden with orders from InStelEx customers. It was cheaper to drop the cargo down an old-fashioned space elevator cable than pay the fuel costs of suborbital barges. Nadje Station was the only island on the equator that made this efficient. Zhoq didn’t give a damn about the customers, or the cargo. All he was responsible for was assurance that the cargo containers were unloaded and ready for transport around the globe. The ‘bots and that damned AI could take care of that.

He trotted down the gantry stairs and across the tarmac. The Station covered most of the island and Zhoq hopped on his flyboard. When he reached home (bemoaning InStelEx’s cheapness at not buying him any real transportation) he found his mother poring over papers on the kitchen table. He took a deep breath and went in.

“Got a load coming, Ma,” he said and opened the cooler. He popped the top of a bottle, leaned back against the counter. “What’cha doing?”

“There’s six months left on this contract,” she said. Like him, she wore the company-issued jumpsuit but her hair was wild, sticking out here and there. She looked crazy. “And then what’ve we got? Nothing.”

“Ma,” Zhoq said. “Beanie never promised a retirement package. Just a job.”

“He bamboozled you,” she said and gathered the papers up. “This company is damned cheap.”

Zhoq guzzled his drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Well, we’ve got a load coming down.” He tipped his bottle again.

“And what are you going to do about it? How are you going to take care of us when this contract ends?” His mother turned on him. “What are you going do?”

Her glare cut through him, threatening to cauterize the wounds her words always left behind.

“I don’t know,” he said and set his bottle on the counter. “I’m going back to wait for the load. I’ll call you when it lands.” He looked at his feet as he walked past her, keeping the table between them. He felt her staring him down with every step.




The robot loaders would be busy for a couple of hours moving containers out of the car and he’d be days ensuring that they weighed the same as they did when they were shipped. As he watched the process he revisited his failures one by one: no degree, no real job skills, no sense of creativity, a lack of courage, being friends with Beanie.

Beanie who bought the last of Zhoq’s product for a song and then talked them into coming out to Cassus to work for InStelEx. Beanie who’d brought them to a dead end with no payoff. Beanie whose voice buzzed in his ear.

“Client calling,” Beanie said. “Wants to talk to you.”

Zhoq felt his stomach drop. “What’s wrong?” Panic tore into the back of his head.

“Nothing as far as I can tell,” Beanie said. “You should take the call.” There was mischief in his voice.

“Okay,” Zhoq said with a sigh. He went to the nearest desk and opened the call. “This is Zhoq, Nadje Station, InStelEx. How can I help you?”

Static crackled. “Zhoq? It’s Aime Thruln. Do you remember me?”

There was no visual (InStelEx never paid for the tech) to go with the lilting voice, but he recognized it. “Aime? Uh… Hi.”

She laughed. “I had heard you were out here. Look, it seems there’s a container still up here. Can we work out another drop? I know it’s unorthodox.”

Stunned, Zhoq looked around, glad now she couldn’t see him. How could he work this? The expenditures would have to be justified and one container wouldn’t be enough to balance out. He decided. Damn the torpedoes.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll come up with the return car.”

“I’d like that very much,” Aime said.

Something in her voice led him to believe that was what she’d wanted all along. Though maybe it wasn’t what he thought. Maybe he hoped too much. Now to see if InStelEx had a reasonable facsimile of an environment suit around somewhere.




She fed him, bathed him and took him to bed. He willingly participated as he had when they were in college. Her friends accused her of slumming and they weren’t shy about saying so in front of him. Zhoq had never had sense enough to be embarrassed then but he was more aware now. Wrapped in her sheets and intoxicated by the smell and taste of her, he wondered for moment what she really wanted.

“That was nice,” she said and kissed his cheek. “I’m so glad I took the chance and called down.”

He shifted toward her. “I’m kind of surprised,” he said. “Didn’t you get married?”

“Mm,” Aime said. “He’s out on a hoot somewhere. Took the shuttle and left me to do the work.”

An alarm went off. “Contact,” a voice said. “Ship’s shuttle Maurice approaching.”

Aime rolled off him and got out of bed. “Thank you,” she said and the alarm stopped. When she turned to him, Zhoq thought she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Her smile was bright and welcoming. “Get dressed. Oscar will be here soon.”

He whipped the cover off and shrugged.

She looked at him, a wicked gleam in her eyes. “All right,” Aime said. “But you have to be quick.”




Zhoq oversaw the loading of the errant container. That should have been done before he ever got on the car to come up to the ship, but his ex-girlfriend had always left him to do the things she should have done. She dumped him when she found someone else who did things better.

Aime readied herself to see her husband, who was some kind of regional supervisor for InStellEx. She had done well for herself but he was bugged by what she really wanted.

A crate split open and spilled some of its packing material. He bent down and picked at the errant stuff . “Huh,” he said and pulled at it. The package came forward. “Well, it looks like someone’s going to be able to file a claim.” Protocol indicated that a damaged package needed to be inspected. When Zhoq stood with it, the bottom of the crate fell out.

“Holy —“ Zhoq squatted down. In the packing debris lay a cylinder that glowed with an unnatural orange light. He reached down and felt  dizzy but picked it up anyway. Inside the cylinder, something moved and his stomach lurched with it. “What are you?” He felt outside himself for a moment and then something clicked. He could cobble the crate back together and stow it in the container behind some other packages. If it was valuable…

No label on the crate so there was no record on the manifest. Aime was using him. But for what? Maybe he had let his imagination run wild. Still. Still.

He reassembled the crate as quick as he could and hid it in the container inside another crate. If it was worth something to Aime, he might be able to parlay that into a future of some kind. His mother might get off his back.




Zhoq stood in the loading bay next to the door into the elevator car. His cheap environment suit lay inside the elevator car. Aime smiled at him. The lone container was strapped in and the loader bots rolled out onto the deck.

“Thanks for making the extra trip,” she said with a wink.

“Look me up next time you’re out this way.” He thought about leaning in to kiss her, but Oscar was somewhere around. Best to leave it.

“I might just do that.”

He lingered a moment then started to turn but he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He wanted to believe she wasn’t setting him up but the voice in his head told him he was ahead of her by knowing it now. At last he stepped into the elevator car. It was big enough to hold a dozen containers so his footsteps echoed inside. Zhoq nodded at Aime and began the closing sequence.

“Where is it?”

“Go,” Aime said. “I’ve got the drop codes in. Get the doors closed.”

He hadn’t seen Oscar but he didn’t want to with that kind of booming voice. He imagined the man to be big and muscular, bearded probably, and with a short temper. Zhoq hurried through the sequence and the doors were almost closed when he saw Oscar stalking across the deck toward him. “Where’s the t-field generator?” There was little relief in Zhoq that he was right about Oscar: he was taller by six inches at least and wider by a foot. Maybe a foot and a half. The doors shut and sealed.

Four screens popped up on the only monitor in the elevator car and Zhoq saw the dock doors open, felt the car moved by robotic arms and then attach to the superstrong tether that would take him down.

“Go,” Aime said on the intercom. “Send the car back right away. He can’t get down until the shuttle’s refueled and refitted. Talk to you later.”

The elevator car slid down its cable and Zhoq slipped on his environment suit. Just in case.




The loader bots down at Nadje Station moved in a lumbering, clanking kind of ballet that made Zhoq more than simply nervous. The sooner he loosed the couplings the sooner Aime, Oscar and their ship would be gone. They’d have to accelerate out of orbit as soon as possible to minimize their fuel expense. Surely they wouldn’t sacrifice their next drop.

“Got a message for you,” Beanie said. “Says ‘Where is it’.”

“Did you respond?” Zhoq looked in the elevator car to see if the loader bots were out.

“Not yet,” Beanie said.

“Don’t, then. I’m locking up the car and sending it back.” He keyed the program and stood back, looked up.

Beanie didn’t reply and Zhoq heard the motors above the car whine into a labored kind of life. They gripped the four coupling cables and pulled upward. The car swung back and forth within the safe ring.

“Stop the car, Zhoq.” Beanie was terse.


“There’s a passenger pod coming down,” Beanie said. “One person aboard.”

Aime or Oscar? The elevator car was already fifty feet in the air. Zhoq had the glowing cylinder secreted away. If he let the car go up safety programs would kick in and push the pod back to the ship. But if he overrode the safeties and sped the car up…

“Can’t do that, Beanie.” He typed madly at the podium near the stairs, opening the interlocks on the car’s software with ease and set the speed as high as it would go. Then he went to the nearest of the four couplings and kicked the safety switches open.

The elevator car was five hundred feet up. The mooring cables combined into one and it picked up speed. Zhoq ran to the next coupling and kicked those switches open. The giant disc quivered with the strain and he ran around the safe distance ring to the third coupling.

“I’ve gotta shut this down, Zhoq.” Beanie wasn’t happy. Zhoq supposed he wouldn’t be happy with some jerk pulling a stunt like this, either. What did he have to lose? In six months he’d be off this rock and in possession of something valuable. Whatever a t-field generator was. “I’m overriding your override.”

“Good luck with that,” Zhoq said running to the last coupling.

The first anchor gave way from its pad with a moan and a pop. It swung in the air in a deadly circle. Zhoq dodged it and kicked the last switch open.

“What have you done, Zhoq?!” Beanie, his friend who didn’t have his best interests in mind at all, said. His raised voice was unusual. Beanie didn’t like to be ruffled..

Zhoq imagined Beanie in the control center trying everything, not believing that he could have engineered this impending disaster.

Just because he didn’t have a degree but that didn’t mean Zhoq hadn’t been paying attention all these years.

The other three couplings came loose and clanged together then separated and swung wildly, a giant flail that would smash him without mercy. Zhoq ran around the safe circle and got to the gantry stairs when he remembered his prize. He dove under the arc of one of the couplings though it was now too high to hit him. He grabbed the little bag that held the t-field generator from behind a pile of boxes..

He felt queasy as he picked it up and stumbled. His stomach lurched again, as it had on Aime’s ship, and he looked up.

The elevator slammed into the pod and there was no explosion – there was nothing remotely fissile on either vehicle – but both broke apart spectacularly. Smoke shot out in streamers and the tether twisted with the violence of it. Zhoq watched it with horror as he realized that everything in that particular part of the sky was about to crash down on Nadje Station. Hard.

“Mom,” Zhoq said. He began to hyperventilate.

He rolled off the gantry and down the stairs when two of the four couplings smashed into the far side of the platform. The metal stairs tore at him as he tumbled over, scraping his face and arms, tearing his InStelEx uniform. He came to a stop in a corner where the stairs turned. Catching his breath he pushed forward and stumbled, caught himself, then checked the t-field generator. Still intact.

The cable careered down, a limp noodle a mile high and weighing more tons than Zhoq could remember. Debris rained on him but most everything was dropping to the other side of the platform. Where his he and his mother lived.

Limping, he came around the base of the loading platform in time to see half of the elevator car smash into a block of buildings. He hung on a corner, watched as the other half crashed down. The dust choked him as it roiled past. The last big piece of debris to hit was most of the passenger pod. When it was done Zhoq shambled forward, covered in dust.

Everything was gone. His house, the buildings where containers were unloaded and sorted, the little swimming pool that he relaxed in sometimes. The only thing he had was the t-field generator. He held it with all the strength he had left.




Zhoq stood amid the wreckage of his home, looking at the rubble surrounding the outstretched hand of his mother. Dust swirled in the light breeze. Beanie picked his way through the debris. “Do you know what you’ve done?”

“No,” Zhoq said without looking up.

“What’s that?”

Zhoq cradled the cylinder. He didn’t feel right. “I’m not sure. T-something or other.”

“Did you get that up there?” Beanie pointed to the sky. “Did you steal that from him? You have no idea who Oscar Taqsipa is. Was. May still be.”

Zhoq looked at Beanie. “Yeah I do know who Taqsipa was. May be. Whatever. I don’t care.”

Beanie put a hand over his ear. “The ship is hailing.”

Zhoq kicked at the debris and looked at Beanie, determined to think this through before he decided what to do next. When he looked up at the sky he finally asked the question.

“So who is it?”


Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

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