By Royce Wilson

Of all the places in the solar system where someone of dubious character could find themselves in trouble, Andropov Station was generally considered among the least worst.

It was also safe to say the most dubious character presently on the station was Ronald “Ronnie” Stoneman, currently sitting handcuffed between two large Peace Committee officers and facing three Justices Of The People in a small beige courtroom.

Originally intended as an ambitious grand work of Soviet space technology and a clear statement of the superiority of the Socialist way of life, the intervening century and a bit had changed the station to the point where it was almost unrecognisable, with permanently moored spacecraft, jury-rigged constructions and countless add-ons obscuring most of the grand design flourishes of its designers.

The times may have changed, but the Governing Council still took its role seriously and fostered a sense of civilisation and order in the Station, even though that was becoming increasingly difficult with the refugees, star-vagrants and stranded ship crews that kept winding up there ever since the Spacelane Wars, the Venusian Emergency and the breakdown of the Plutonian Government.

Law and order was a key reason the Station had managed relatively well and the Governing Council had categorically refused to legislate the death penalty – but that didn’t stop some of the individual pods or shanties from looking the other way if the People’s Peace Committee officers tasered some violent criminal to death because they “resisted arrest”. But legally? No death penalty on Andropov Station, no matter how terrible the crime.

Ronnie was, by his own admission, a space pirate. He made his living hijacking ships, plundering derelicts and wrecks, and spending what few dollars he made on women, booze, drugs, and gambling.

He found himself at Andropov not in search of those things, but because of the autopilot on the last vessel he hijacked – a hyrdrofreighter bringing water from Ganymede.

The ship was an older model and only had a single crewmember – the captain, from the African Union. He had no interest in handing his vessel over to a pirate and fought viciously before Ronnie stabbed him with an energy knife several times, making quite a mess of the cockpit in the process.

Ronnie’s plan, in as far as he ever formulated them, had been to divert the freighter to one of the mining settlements on Miranda and sell the water to anyone prepared to pay a decent price and not ask too many questions.

Unfortunately for Ronnie, the ship’s control language was set to Swahili, and he could not understand any of it. He was stranded aboard with no choice but to stay with the hydrofreighter until it reached its destination.

Space Traffic Control at Andropov suspected something was wrong when the voice answering their hailing was clearly not from the African Union.

The Customs and Revenue Commissariat officers knew something was wrong because the cockpit was covered in dried blood, which the pilot tried explaining away with a clearly ridiculous lie involving something about cutting himself while shaving.

The People’s Peace Committee officers wasted no time hurling Ronnie into the nearest brig, pending his trial the next day.

The evidence was so indisputable Ronnie’s Advocate For The Accused didn’t even bother to get out of his chair when he was asked if the defence had anything to say on its client’s behalf; he just shook his head.

The Justices Of The People overseeing the trial conferred momentarily, before the senior member solemnly addressed Ronnie.

“In light of your obvious guilt and the particularly serious nature of the crimes, we find you guilty on all charges. You are hereby sentenced to 1000 hours of community service by spacewalk, cleaning and maintaining the exterior of the station. Sentence to begin immediately,” she said.

Her gavel banged on the data screen.

Externally, Ronnie did his best to look humbled. Internally, he was ecstatic. 1000 hours community service for hijacking that supply ship, killing the captain, and all the other stuff? That was, what, 125 days, assuming an eight-hour workday? Probably less if they stretched it out to 10 hours. Then he’d be free to go. There’d be juicy opportunities waiting around Saturn’s moons then; it’d be right in the middle of peak hydro-freight time, so lots of rich pickings indeed.

He’d have to make some calls, obviously – put together a crew, pay off some people for intel – but that was all pretty straightforward, and he had six months or so to work out the details.

He was unceremoniously dragged to his feet by the guards, and frogmarched from the room and down a series of corridors.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked.

“To airlock,” said the larger of the two guards, for whom English was clearly a second or even third language. “Judge say sentence is to start immediately.”

“I hope you have warm clothes under jumpsuit. It is cold outside” grinned the other guard.

The airlock was in the maintenance section of the main pod – it was stencilled on the wall in Cyrillic, English and French – with the airlock comprising a large door with a large porthole and big wheel just underneath it; clearly a locking mechanism.

Deftly, the smaller guard turned the wheel, and the airlock door swung open. Ronnie found himself roughly shoved through the door, which slammed shut with a metallic thud behind him.

Looking around, he noticed the airlock had nothing else in it – no space suit, no maintenance tools, not even a squeegee.

“Where’s my helmet? My oxygen tank?” he demanded with some confusion.

“The sentence was 1000 hours community service as spacewalk,” the shorter guard said through the intercom. “No one said anything about providing you with spacesuit or oxygen while you were doing it.”

“What?” Ronnie exclaimed. “That’s insane. How am I –”

“If you can hold your breath for 1000 hours, you can come back in, and consider yourself rehabilitated,” the guard said with a barely concealed smirk.

Both guards laughed and waved through the porthole, as the larger one pressed the large red button on the wall-mounted control panel. “See you, space pirate.”

Ronnie’s anguished cry-and-swear-word compilation was abruptly cut off as the airlock door hissed open, and he was suddenly sucked backwards into the cold, unforgiving darkness outside.


About the Author:

Royce Wilson is a freelance journalist, feature writer and historian from Brisbane, Queensland whose interests range from computer games and technology to military history and travel.

His favourite literary genres are science fiction, Lovecraftian horror, pulp adventure, and humour. As a journalist his work regularly appears in The Australian and Game On Aus, as well as assorted other outlets, and he has previously written for a number of national and regional newspapers and websites both in Australia and overseas. He tweets at @RoyceWilsonAU

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