gold or iron

The process is not, in truth, all that complicated. The rock is surveyed, its mass and density ascertained. Stays are drilled into its core and motors attached; sometimes, an abort mechanism is added, though usually not. The most sophisticated aspect is the navigation; the calculations are logical enough, but the raw data must be perfect. Once the course has been determined and the relative positions of the rock and the target fit – once the planets have aligned, if you will – the motors fire, and the rock accelerates. It passes for a time through the depthless vacuum; once its fuel has all burnt away, it is acted on only by the tug of distant stars and the faint drift of the galaxy a-whirl all about it. Then, if the aiming solution is good, it makes contact with the target and, through a brief but intense series of interactions that can be explained to you by any schoolboy caught doodling explosions in his physics class, introduces that target to all the pent-up hate and frustration of the rock’s engineers.

I can see the rock now, through the Blantyre’s one real window. I’ve been seeing images of it almost constantly for a year, from mission-briefing models six months and three systems away to crass, blurred “action footage” from a few hours ago as the Longstreet shot off the booster engines at unnecessarily close range. As it lies before me now it’s a tiny glint, only visible by the reflected sunlight; but say what you like, there’s something special about seeing things with your own eyes.

Starbreakers, Inc., say the patches on my suit and the livery on the hull of the Blantyre, a meaningless moniker thought up by people who believe in “brand management”, men and women in suits who I’m glad I’ll never meet. We are not the biggest or the oldest of the rock-stopping operations around – both of those titles are for Spiros & Harker – but our oh-so-understated ads, placed in the pages of people who pray they’ll never need us, say we’re the best. Response times matter in this business, and we’re faster than S&H; less institutional inertia, less of the stultifying regulation that comes from trying to standardise something too big over too wide a space. S&H have fossilised as a corporation; we might overtake them in a few years, and have our own turn at the top of the slippery pole, underdogs snapping at our vulnerable nethers. The only other serious contender on the interstellar stage are Weltabwehr, who kicked off fifteen years ago and are so good it’s scary, but who fouled up the Leo job through no fault of their own; the bets are still open as to whether the company’s rep died in that impact, but four million people certainly did, and counting.

So: here we are, a few hundred kilometres from this nameless lump of inertial murder, and coming in quick, with very large amounts of currency and, potentially, human life, at stake.

“It’s a military op,” I remember saying with some surprise to Artem, two months ago, when the Blantyre set off from the company station above New Ambleside.

“Well, of course it is,” he said. Then, with some suspicion, “Do you make a habit of clocking on without even looking at the mission?”

“Do you think I’d turn a job down?” I replied, and that seemed to satisfy him.

Of course, I was breaking the line by even calling it a “military op”; we are meant to be neutral here, acting only as civilian contractors, apolitical averters of impact events. But you can work most of the situation out from context; people don’t pay Starbreakers fees unless their existence is at stake, and people don’t weaponise asteroids unless they wish their fellow man considerable discomfort. There are at least two players involved beside us: one of them has attached the drivers to set this rock on its way, and the other, who presumably lives on the planet in the way, objects to being annihilated by a giant inertial kill vehicle, and is willing to pay a staggering amount of money to avoid this happening. You can draw further conclusions – that these are two rather undeveloped players, nascent colonies without spaceflight and possibly without even serious industry, from inferring that the victim nation doesn’t have the launch capacity to attempt an intercept themselves and the aggressor can’t afford anything more subtle or sophisticated than a pebble from God’s own sling – but here you enter the realms of speculation.

As this is a contentious mission rather than a random rock, we’ve got some shooters to look after us; a warship named the Longstreet, run by an outfit called Brisk Security, which will be shadowing the Blantyre for the duration. I personally haven’t heard a single good thing about their character; the one who was constantly trying to chat me up over the link for the last six weeks was certainly no paragon. But rep matters, even out here at the ends of the stars; and their rep for competent violence is solid as a million tonnes of nickel-iron.

Speaking of which. The rock ahead doesn’t have a name; optics have picked up PANDEMONIUM scrawled on some of the engine housings, but nobody wants to write that in a report. We just call it “the rock”, in a display of stunning imagination.

I’ve been on two rock-stopping jobs for Starbreakers before, the first of which paid off my training, the second of which gave me savings enough to live comfortably for the rest of my days. Neither was contentious; there are plenty of pieces of stellar debris threatening to rub out underdeveloped colonies, and plenty of governments who will pay us to avoid that. But there are only so many people insane enough to attempt to weaponise an asteroid. Rocks flung at planets are objectively bad weapons, full stop. They’re extremely difficult to shoot down, but they cost more than a ballistic missile programme, and if the calculations are even slightly off they miss entirely or, worse, flatten the wrong continent. Even when they work perfectly, they cause the sort of collateral damage that makes them a crime against good business practice.

Like everything, it comes down to money. Doing anything in the void costs. Motors are cheap and ubiquitous enough in space terms, and rocks are a budget option compared to genuine spaceborne weapons, but cheap in space terms is still ruinous, and the “budget” in question is that of a well-off planet. And as a countermeasure, the cost of a Starbreakers callout… well, we’re the best, and we charge accordingly. You get what you pay for; you pay for what you get.

I’ve done my reading: there have only been twenty-one contentious rock-stopping runs in all of human history. Spiros & Harker have done six, one of which saw two of their teams killed and a warship dragooned in at the eleventh hour; a considerable expense in both blood and treasure. Starbreakers have done one, which went off without a hitch.

I don’t know what was in the minds of the people who planned this particular rock. They may even be mad enough to believe it will actually hit. But it will be a year before the rock hits, long enough for the suits to try again and again. A second mission would turn profit to loss, a third would put the entire company in financial jeopardy; but their rep rests on it, and that is worth everything.

Compared to all those trillions, the expense of a few sophisticated booby-traps and deterrents is negligible, and we have no doubt the rock is riddled with them. I’m fighting the craftsmen who worked this rock, not the planners or the paymasters. If they are better at their jobs than me, I’ll never be close enough to my killers to even see them. There can be no malice at such distances.

“Belt up,” says Artem, terse as he always is, and we go below to prepare.

We are the pawns in the most detached method of fighting ever devised. This is war without slaughter, war without hate; war reduced to a puzzle game, played down a one-way wire five years old and fifty million kilometres long. The only person likely to die is me.

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